circa 1979, Otway 3
The French were the first, in 1915, to experiment with “disruptive patterns” of light, shade, and color hand-painted on uniforms and artillery—a technique indebted to Cubism. In 1940, the rich and eccentric British Surrealist Roland Penrose decided that he could best contribute to his country’s defense by recruiting artists for a camouflage unit, and lecturing on their research to the Home Guard.
Despite a bantam physique and a receding chin, Man Ray attracted singular women. Miller succeeded an adorably lewd and fleshy cabaret singer who was a legend of the Latin Quarter: Kiki de Montparnasse.
Perhaps it was trust, or perhaps, as Miller’s own work suggests, it was dissociation. She had the gift of finding beauty in a wasteland, and her eye tends to petrify what it looks at. Organic forms and living creatures become abstract in her pictures, but movingly so—the way a nymph fleeing an aggressor is transformed into a star. Where human figures appear in a frame, they are often faceless or disembodied. Her best photographs from the war are of corpses, landscapes, statuary, or distant violence. Once she was proficient with a camera, Man Ray promoted her for commissions that he couldn’t fulfill or didn’t want.
Man Ray was a generous mentor, but his generosity didn’t extend to sharing his protégée with rivals in the arts.
A darkroom accident (Miller turned the lights on before she realized that a batch of negatives was in the tank) led, by her account, to the discovery of “solarization,” a process in which the background of a portrait is overexposed to outline the head with a black penumbra. Many years later, claiming partial credit for one of Man Ray’s most famous solarized images, Miller pretended that it didn’t really matter which of them had made it, because “we were almost the same person when we were working.”
Pure as a lake boredom
I hear its harmony
In the vast cold room
The nuance of light seems eternal
All is simple I admire
the full totality of objects.
_ Dora Maar