Man Ray portrayed the artists and writers of Paris in the 1920s and ’30s as indelibly as Nadar did their 19th-century predecessors. Indeed, Man Ray’s deathbed photograph of Marcel Proust makes a fitting bookend to Nadar’s of Victor Hugo. But Nadar, when he memorialized France’s literary titan in 1885, was himself a venerable Paris institution, while Man Ray, who rushed to Proust’s apartment in 1922 at the bidding of Jean Cocteau, was an American who spoke terrible French and had been living in Paris for little over a year.
The marvel of “Man Ray’s Paris Portraits, 1921-1939” is his access as well as his artistry. Before relocating, Man Ray had been befriended by Marcel Duchamp and Tristan Tzara, two vanguard artists. They smoothed his Parisian entry, and are among the subjects in this exhibition of 72 vintage prints, mostly drawn from the collection of Timothy Baum, a private art dealer who knew Man Ray in the last years of his life and collaborated on this show.
Man Ray flattered his subjects. To soften wrinkles and other imperfections, he typically shot with a long lens from a distance, and he slightly overexposed the film. Yet his portraits were profoundly revealing: the knowing eyes of the poet Anna de Noailles, the glazed stare of the perennially pickled Sinclair Lewis, the burly forcefulness of a young Alexander Calder. And then there is his self-portrait, taken in his mid-30s — tie intentionally askew, eyes penetrating, and mouth set in a line of unstoppable determination.