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Photography Review

The images in a lover’s frame

Exhibition captures time of Man Ray and Lee Miller’s intense and productive relationship

Man Ray’s “Observatory Time — The Lovers.’’ Man Ray’s “Observatory Time — The Lovers.’’ (The Israel Museum By Avshalom Avital)
By Mark Feeney
Globe Staff / June 10, 2011

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SALEM — Couples don’t come much odder. Lee Miller (1907-77) possessed an aloof, even lofty beauty that had made her one of Edward Steichen’s favorite models and put her on the cover of Vogue when she was 19. Notably older, Man Ray (1890-1976) was also notably less attractive. Frizzy hair and bulging, pouchy eyes gave him the look of a demented accountant — not that the resemblance ended there.

Yet their being a couple made perfect sense artistically. “I would rather take a picture than be one,’’ Miller once said. In 1929, when she moved to Paris to study photography with him, Man Ray had already emerged as a leading light of Surrealism. For much of the next three years, they would be lovers, collaborators, and, for lack of a better term, mutual muses.

The standard interpretation of their relationship is as artist and model, with Miller not emerging as a fine photographer in her own right until several years later. “Man Ray/Lee Miller, Partners in Surrealism,’’ which opens tomorrow at the Peabody Essex Museum and runs through Dec. 4, argues otherwise.

The key word in the title of this rich and richly varied show is partners. Obviously, Miller provided Man Ray with inspiration. The word is, in fact, nowhere near strong enough. You see it in the 1929 portrait where she seems to float horizontally, as if the figurehead on the flagship of a fleet sailing into the future. Actually, Miller posed standing up, with her head thrust back against the wall. Man Ray, being Man Ray (meaning as practical as he was sly), manipulated it simply by rotating the print 90 degrees to get the desired effect.

You see the inspiration even more in the carnal reverence his camera accorded Miller in the many nudes he took of her during their time together — and reverence was not a common Man Ray response to anything. His photograph here “The Prayer’’ subverts its title with deadpan glee. It shows a nude woman’s buttocks, her hands clasped beneath them, as if beseeching a porcelain god. Sacrilege doesn’t come much more sacrilegious than that.

You can see the inspiration most clearly — most alarmingly, too — in the almost demonic agitation that fills the work he did in the wake of her leaving him. Eighty years later, “Observatory Time — The Lovers’’ with its rendering of Miller’s very red lips floating in the clouds, looks like a giddy premonition of Pop Art. Yet that reading obscures the sublimated desire and rage that fill the image. It’s one of the great renderings in 20th-century art of thwarted longing.

Or there’s the even more famous “Indestructible Object’’ (originally, “Object to Be Destroyed’’), from 1932. It consists of a metronome with a cutout of Miller’s eye — and she had astonishingly beautiful eyes — attached to the pendulum. The work came with instructions. They concluded, “Keep going to the limit of endurance. With a hammer well-aimed, try to destroy the whole in a single blow.’’ Has a spurned lover ever offered a more diabolical riposte? Tormented, Man Ray at once fetishizes her and lovingly invokes her demolition.

Beyond inspiration was partnership. Together they developed the technique of solarization, which involves exposing already exposed film in the darkroom. This can produce strikingly otherworldly results, as in “Solarized Portrait of Lee Miller.’’ Rather than wearing a figurative halo, Miller becomes one in toto. The epitome of their collaboration might be “Neck.’’ It shows Miller’s head in quarter profile above her sinuously curved neck. Man Ray took the photograph, only to throw away the negative. Miller retrieved and printed it. In a further twist, he would put the image in his painting “The Artist’s Home.’’ The question of attribution blurs into one of identity.

Man Ray wasn’t the only photographer influencing Miller. The show includes 19 examples of her early work. Two pictures of carousels look uncannily like Atgets. The dramatic use of shadows in “Tanja Ramm With Cloak’’ is very Steichen. “Observatory Time’’ isn’t the only instance of prefiguring. “Untitled (Woman With Hand on Head)’’ could easily be mistaken for a picture Lisette Model might have taken. Yet Model, also in Paris then, didn’t take up photography until the year after Miller returned to New York. Clearly, there was something in the Parisian air.

The show devotes a section to the creative circle — painters, writers, sculptors — that Man Ray and Miller belonged to in Paris: Picasso, Dora Maar, Alexander Calder, the poet Paul Eluard, the painter Roland Penrose, who would marry Miller, in 1947. Besides photographs, the 75 or so items on display include paintings, books, drawings, letters — and a cigar box Man Ray rather enchantingly reworked in 1974 as a gift for Miller. Reconciling later in the ’30s, they remained close friends until Man Ray’s death. Their relationship was a different kind of indestructible object.

Mark Feeney can be reached at mfeeney@globe.com.

MAN RAY/LEE MILLER, PARTNERS IN SURREALISM

Peabody Essex Museum, East India Square, Salem, tomorrow through Dec. 4. Call 978-745-9500 or go to www.pem.org.