“It happens all the time,” writes the New York Times‘ Sala Elise Patterson, “A beautiful young woman decides she wants to become a model and asks a photographer friend to take some head shots. Seventy years ago this ordinary series of events took an unlikely turn. That was because the beautiful woman was black; the photographer was her lover Man Ray; and one of the photographs landed in the September 1937 issue of Harper’s Bazaar, making her the first black model to appear in a major fashion magazine.”
That counted as one of the particularly notable events in the brief life together of the surrealist photographer and his Guadaloupe-born “lover, model and muse”Adrienne, better known as Ady, Fidelin. Some of the less historical moments of that companionship we have captured in the clips above, a series of home movies of Man Ray and Ady shot in 1938. We see the former working, the latter dancing, both traveling, and several other unguarded moments besides — very much the opposite of the still intricately (and sometimes disturbingly) vivid compositions that characterize the way Man Ray captured humanity in his own work.
Other surrealists also took to the then-nascent technology of home filmmaking. The painter René Magritte put a bit more deliberate craft into his own amateur productions, such as the minute-and-a-half-long short film you see just above. “He went out and purchased a lot of expensive equipment and spent much of the week composing a ‘script’ based on the images in his paintings,” remembers art critic and onetime Magritte actress Suzi Gablik in her autobiography Living the Magical Life: An Oracular Adventure. “When Saturday night arrived, we all took part in the drama. My role was to sit in a chair, wearing a red carnival mask over my eyes, giving birth to a tuba, which emerged slowly from under my skirt.”
An event better seen, perhaps, than described, and one that fits in with the rest of the antics the artist managed to stage and capture, including one fellow “playing the part of a hunchback thief” who — clearly possessed of a collector’s eye — goes around the house stealing Magritte’s paintings. Though both now remembered as top-of-the-line surrealists, Man Ray and Magritte took quite different approaches to their art — and, as we see, entirely different approaches to the things they made in their off hours. But both men’s cinematic impulses proved fruitful: Man Ray made several still-striking narrative films, and as for Magritte’s project, writes Gablik, it ended up shown years later “as a short accompanying the favorite film of the surrealists about Dracula, Nosferatu.” Not bad for a home movie.
Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and style. He’s at work on a book about Los Angeles, A Los Angeles Primer, the video series The City in Cinema, the crowdfunded journalism project Where Is the City of the Future?, and the Los Angeles Review of Books’ Korea Blog. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.