Our Best Work: On Man Ray’s Hollywood Album and Me

March 12, 2015 | 1 11 min read


It’s 2007, just a few months before the onset of what will be known as the Great Recession. I’m a work-study student in the Getty’s Special Collections, half in love with the place and entirely head over heels for my coworkers. “The job really lets you work on your own stuff,” they say to me. And I can tell it’s true because they have smile lines and laugh with open mouths and take very long coffee breaks. What a collection of misfits we are: artists, a writer, a naturalist — all parading around as library assistants. It’s utopia, I think, a place for likeminded people to congregate, support each other, and have health insurance and a paycheck. Perfect for an undergraduate in transition. I want badly to be part of their group, so when a reader returns the Man Ray Hollywood Album, pages slightly crumbled and out of order, I jump at the opportunity to prove myself.

The Hollywood Album is a collection of Man Ray’s letters and writings and is among the Getty’s most prized possessions. It’s often called up for use by scholars, students, or those just looking to know more about the famed surrealist photographer, who spent the majority of the Second World War living off Vine Street in Hollywood. It came to the Getty in a binder, one of those canvas types that could be mistaken for family photo album. It’s dark denim blue and not at all archival, correspondence almost spilling out. It really should be in Mylar sleeves, placed in archival boxes, and numbered for easy reference.

When I mention rehousing the Man Ray Hollywood Album to my supervisor, he agrees and convinces the librarians I’m the one for the job. Of everyone, I adore my supervisor the most, so I carry out the Man Ray rehousing project with what I imagine is the utmost professionalism. With my Mylar and archival pencils and binder boxes, I begin.

The first series of folders come from 1941. Man Ray has escaped Nazi occupied Paris through Spain and Portugal. He’s met a tie salesman in New York who is about to set off for the west coast. Something about Los Angeles appeals to him. He’s in his 50s, already a famous photographer.

My coworkers laugh at how delicately I touch the papers, which are thin and brown like dried petals. Some are typed, others hand written on stationery with his address printed in the top corner:

Chateau des Fleurs Apartment hôtel
1245 North Vine Hollywood CA

I convince my husband to drive by the building late one night. It’s still there, now the Villa Elaine, stuck between a Mexican-Salvadorian restaurant and a hair salon called Quality Hair. Air-conditioning units hang cockeyed from its windows. A few blocks north is Capital Records and the Pantages Theater.

Man Ray’s writing is almost girly with sloped letters. It reminds me of my sister’s — jilted and thin. I picture him like her then: highly intelligent, guarded, and possibly a nail biter. He writes:

I had a secret respect for the camera and an open admiration for those who were using this instrument as a means of self-expression. Unlike the painters of the 19th century who looked with a certain contempt upon this new fangled means of reproduction contempt mingled with a fear that it might replace legitimate painting, I felt from the very beginning that here was a new art destined to complement the more traditional media, not to replace — to add another string to the love of the arts. Only those with enough self confidence in their own message could accept new developments and incorporate them into their repertoire.

Everything in this part of the Hollywood Album is written pompous and aware that someone will be reading it. Man Ray is sensitive to the importance of image, probably from his years behind the camera, but what’s more, he is keenly aware of how to perpetuate and manipulate his own appearance. But I’m young and eager, and I buy it: We are brave souls — for chasing our creative pursuits, for not being afraid of change. I’m nodding and thinking, yes, yes, yes. Tell me more. The photographer from my art history textbooks is speaking directly to me.

Then I come across an earlier letter typed to his sister when he’s still in Paris, and a line jumps out at me:

I hate photography.

How can this be? The full line reads: “I hate photography and want to do only what is absolutely necessary to keep going, and produce something that interests me personally.” I read it several times. Man Ray the photographer hates photography?

My coworkers chuckle when I photocopy the letter and highlight the line in pink. But something about it has rattled me. If someone like Man Ray can be dissatisfied with what he’s accomplished, what hope do I have? Even at the Getty, where so many of my coworkers have found success outside work, a lot have done so because the Getty was there to provide access and inspire. They call it “The Eagles Nest” because here — —perched high above the city, far removed but with a view — the possibilities are endless. The city, the world, stretches out beneath us — ours.

We have access to the vaults, and time to explore the collections inside: Impressionist letters between Claude Monet and Pierre-Auguste Renoir, they’re worried about their friend Vincent Van Gogh; the Ernst Ludwig Kirchner sketchbooks, smelling faintly like old lace and cigarettes; the Giovanni Battista Piranesi drawings, which we store flat and in large black suitcases; or the Henri Matisse cut-outs, given to his friend Gloria de Herrera who — when debilitating arthritis prevented him from painting — helped cut, paste, and preserve his later works. There are collections on alchemy, Japanese Avant-Garde, Russian Modernism, Italian Futurism — all available for our use. In the gardens, above the vaults, are fountains and moss-covered stones, sycamores pruned so their leaves are larger than beach balls — a whole landscape designed to inspire — there are travertine courtyards and balconies with a view. Sometimes my supervisor admonishes me playfully. “The Getty is not what it seems,” he insists. “What a silly old man,” I tell him. “You’ve just been here too long.”

I hang the photocopied Man Ray letter above my desk, which is really an open terminal where my supervisor has taped a sign with my name in handwriting made all the more mysterious because of its bold and leaning all-caps, unfamiliar and masculine. He keeps the sign in his desk when I’m not there, which is most of the week because of school. But on Fridays and Saturdays, there’s the sign with my name and the Hollywood Album waiting for me.

Man Ray, I learn, wants to paint. That’s all he’s ever really cared about. Photography is a means to an end, much like my coworkers and the Getty: The job really lets you work on your own stuff. So Man Ray sees this war, this trip out west as a break from what he calls the “business of photography.” He’ll head to Los Angeles, where the sun sets on your American dream:

It may have been because I was at the wheel, while Harry dozed. I felt the desire to overtake the sunset as if it were a rainbow, before it faded. Suddenly my companion awoke with a start and looked at the speedometer. The needle was at ninety.

We take frequent breaks because the Getty has good air conditioning. It’s that rarefied museum air that’s very, very cold. You have to wear a sweater and drink tea. But outside, it’s golden and smells like ocean and damp canyons. Sometimes the city is overcast, completely blotted out by white, and on those days we call the Getty “Cloud City” as if we are even further removed. Other days, it’s so clear you can see individual sparkles like tiny gold sequins on the Santa Monica Bay. It’s very easy to get swept up by the beauty. I point out my school; I have finals soon and then graduation. And there’s my apartment, somewhere in that general area near Ballona Creek; my husband still asleep because he works nights at the restaurant. He’ll be gone by the time I get home.

For the first year, Hollywood is a marvel to Man Ray. In a letter to his sister, he writes: “I am working a bit—but the weather is so fine it’s a shame to stay home.” Soon he buys a car, having given up trying to navigate the city by foot and public transportation. It’s a Graham-Paige ’41, blue and streamlined. Man Ray calls it his “submarine.” Everything dazzles, even earthquakes:

“The weather is always sunny with very little rain and just the evening’s cool. Yesterday about 5:30 as I sat at my easel the house rocked a little with a deep rumbling in the air; just a little earthquake!”

He sends his sister a postcard from Bob Brooks’s 7 Seas, a pre-Tiki Hollywood nightclub across the street from Grauman’s Chinese theater; it was famous during World War II for celebrity sightings. He writes: “They have real rain falling on the landscape in back of bar! Love Man”

When I’m home, I’m thinking of the Getty. Even at school, I’m thinking of it, but with more urgency because I can see it from campus. Some nights, I even dream about it. At the Christmas party — the theme White Christmas so everything is lit up with tiny white lights, mimicking the slow crawl of headlights that blink up from the 405 Freeway — my coworkers regale me with tales of Christmas parties past. “When things were better,” they say. How could things be better? We’re wandering soft-lit corridors, where travertine fossils of leaves and bird bones look striking in blue-chalk-like shadow, and then outside, down in the garden, where the onion is blooming and you can hear the fountain but not see it, and where someone, your supervisor probably, is complaining about the quality of the wine. “Things are changing,” he tells you. But there is a dessert bar with tiny lemon bars and chocolate dipped strawberries and miniature mille-feuille with combed icing, the custard not too sweet.

Man Ray has several shows while living in Hollywood, mostly at the William Copley Gallery. He sends for his work, particularly excited about the prospect of selling his surrealist painting of the Marquis de Sade. He also sets about creating various new paintings in his studio. There are retrospectives in Pasadena, Santa Barbara, and even San Francisco, which means a trip up the coast. The drive is marvelous. He’s seduced by the sky, the cliffs, the far-reaching Pacific, calling it all “dramatic” and “entrancing.” His letters to his sister are excited during this period, and he writes often:

Dear Elsie,

Well, I am working steadily on my painting and expect interesting developments. The weather is always sunny with very little rain and just the evenings cool.

Dear Elsie…With the work I have produced here, it’s going to make quite an important showing. The exposition is now scheduled for the last week of this month, and I shall send you an ‘invitation’

Dear Elsie,

You can see by the enclosed catalogue that I have been getting somewhere, and I think it is going far!

At the Getty, there are beginning to be a lot goodbye parties. This time, it’s the head archivist; she’s leaving for a job in Montreal. Last month, it was the Research Institute’s director. But I don’t mind; the parties are held at the house Richard Meier built so he could live onsite during construction of the center. It’s lower on the hillside beneath eucalyptus trees: a gorgeous mid-century modern bachelor pad — like something out of a Julius Shulman photo — with an outdoor pool flowing into the living room and courtyard overlooking Brentwood and Santa Monica.

Bon Appetit, the Getty’s food service company, serves martinis and tiny appetizers. Someone makes a speech, and there’s a toast. My coworkers take me down the hill, through bougainvillea and aloe plants, down a narrow staircase to a tennis court, aged and dusty. The gardeners have erected a basketball hoop, but even this looks underused as their hours have been cut back, too. We sit in lawn chairs, drink from a flask, watch the sky turn red and orange, the sun setting somewhere behind us, over the Pacific. We toast to the head archivist. “May her buy-out be generous,” we say.

Things begin to change for Man Ray after a few years of living in Hollywood. His paintings aren’t selling. In a letter, he writes: “There were no catalogs printed because of the shortage on paper. Some mimeographed sheets were sent out to the press, and the local result is without interest.” He calls Hollywood “conservative.” He quips that if New York is 20 years behind Europe, the west is 20 years behind New York. Critics reject his surrealist portrait of the Marquis de Sade, and when a private collector makes an offer, it is so low Man Ray considers it an insult. His letters become sporadic, often apologizing for his “low morale” or making excuses: he’s “taking it easy,” going through a “hermit period.” And then it happens. The beauty of the west changes on him; the excitement of possibility sours. He writes to his sister: “Dear Elsie, California is like a beautiful prison…”

The month leading up to the layoffs is tense. Not enough people have taken the buy-out offers. There are no more martini goodbye parties, no extended coffee breaks, no horsing around in the vaults. Everyone is furtive, shoulders up to their ears, lips thin, thin lines. Even my supervisor, who will smile at you full in the face, eyes bright and twinkling, even his boyish charm has diminished. He watches the sunrise from his desk now. Half the department is gone by my graduation. People cry — really sob — in the elevator, in the hallways, I hear one girl in the bathroom stall; she is bawling. I stay, however — even hired on a few months later full-time. Because of my initiative, upper management tells me — because, for example, I am rehousing the Man Ray Hollywood Album with such gusto.

1245 Vine St. Hollywood
February 3 1951

Dear Elsie,

Well the die has cast; I am closing my studio and moving everything to New York. We have reservations to sail for Paris on the 12th of March on the De Grasse…

This is where the Hollywood Album ends. Man Ray leaves California with a new wife and a car that he loves as much as any man can love his car, but I don’t think that’s what he expected to get out of Los Angeles. The West had promised infinite possibilities — how disappointing that his opportunities were exhausted, that it was time to leave.

Now that Special Collections has half the staff, there is no time to indulge in curiosities. I’m only able to look Man Ray up online while supervising the Special Collections Reading Room. He doesn’t give up on painting; he returns to Paris to find his house still standing and sets to work on his autobiography, which will read like someone determined to convince himself that he was always meant to be a famous photographer. He writes at one point: “Drawing and painting for me were a relief from photography, but I had no intention of substitution. There was no conflict between the two.” Ha. I know better.

Something sticks with me, though: What you do to pay the bills is your life’s work. You drive the 405 and take the tram or shuttle and sit at your desk — your very own because now it has a plaque with your name in Helvetica. You have lunch with your supervisor, who is still adorable and boyish only now in a slightly more complicated way because you see him every damn day. There are sick days and vacation days and time in between, but mostly you’re thinking about meetings and upcoming shows and how to get those smile lines and everyone to laugh that throaty laugh again.

Man Ray painted, but he also wrote and made movies and designed chess pieces and more or less invented photograms. But we hear his name and think photographer. Will this happen to me? Will my legacy be taking Special Collection material to and from a silent sterile reading room simply because it’s what I do to pay rent? Will I one day have to make peace with that — would I be able to? I wonder about this for the next four years until I abruptly quit one summer to pursue writing full time.

Sometimes I’m struck with profound regret or maybe it’s longing — the kind that comes with age. In his autobiography, Man Ray isn’t bitter about those 10 years in Los Angeles. He doesn’t see them as a lost decade. He’s even romantic; when he describes the California coast, he’s still a little dazzled. You can be in love with a place then, with its people, and still not want to be there. It feels like the last of my youth was spent at the Getty — the last days of childhood before the awkward ugliness of puberty. There aren’t happy endings? Fulfilling jobs? Friends, willing to do anything for each other, like a surrogate family? I leave more jaded, older. Did Man Ray experience this also? When he left California did he feel a dull heartache? Did he worry it might never go away?

Recently at a fancy restaurant in Hollywood, I saw one of his prints in the bathroom. It was the famous one of a woman’s eyes looking up and to the side — mascara heavy; lids smeared with black powder; two thin eyebrows; and water drops like congealed tears, like tiny translucent orbs. It really is his best work.

Image courtesy of the author.

has been nominated for the Kirkwood Literary Prize in Fiction twice, selected for the New Short Fiction series, and a recipient of a Squaw Valley scholarship. She has been published in Hair Pin, Enaegon Magazine, Autolycus, and others. She is currently pursuing an MFA through the University of California Riverside.

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