Three photographs you should see this week in New York

Jessica Backus
Apr 3, 2013 1:00PM

In just a few short days New York will be abuzz with the AIPAD photography show and a series of important photography auctions. Often overlooked in all the hubbub, well-deserved as it is, are the photographic offerings at the city’s museums. Here's the first of my top three picks of shows worth pounding the pavement and looking slowly for.

Number 3: The unseen force of electricity – Man Ray at the Museum of Modern Art

Electricity has never been more alluring than in Man Ray’s capable hands.  This work from 1931 was the result of a commission from la Compagnie Parisienne de Distribution d’Electricité (cpde), which had been instrumental in increasing the use of electricity in France and now hoped to provide its top customers with a gift that testified to the company's forward-thinking business savvy. The task for the electric company’s marketing department was to give a human face to this newfangled, mysterious technological force, which in 1931 was seen as more modern, and thus in many ways more suspect, than the more popular utility of gas. Man Ray produced ten photogravures printed in an edition of 500, and many of them portray the new kitchen gadgets being marketed towards women at this time. An American artist known for his irreverent Dada activities, Man Ray stood for modernity and innovation, two attributes the cpde hoped to capitalize on. Whether they also wanted to be risqué is another story; Man Ray injected a dose of humor, subversion and experimentation into the portfolio, in particular in this nude shot of his lover, the model and photographer Lee Miller, creating what one commentator has called a “portrait of the unseen force of electricity.”

An edition of this photograph is on view at the Museum of Modern Art as part of its reassessment of photography’s relationship to avant-garde and neo-avant-garde practices, “The Shaping of New Visions: Photography, Film, Photobook.” The exhibition is a laudatio to iconic works of the 20th century, from Bauhaus artists like László Moholy-Nagy to the conceptual artist’s books of Ed Ruscha. The former believed photography could unlock a new understanding of space and time by capturing the world in an utterly new light, making the invisible visible, a stance he stridently proclaimed in his aptly titled book New Vision (1928). “We need Utopians of genius, a new Jules Verne, not to sketch the broad outlines of an easily imaginable technical Utopia, but to prophesy the existence of a man of the future.” In the lively atmosphere of avant-garde experimentation, embraces of technology were not at the expense of verve or eros. Making the invisible visible meant giving a compelling visual form to a physical force, and for Man Ray there was no more compelling a force than desire.


Stefanie Spray Jandl. "Man Ray's Electricité." Gastronomica: The Journal of Food and Culture. Vol. 2, No. 1 (Winter 2002) (pp. 12-15).

László Moholy-Nagy. The New Vision (1928). Translated by Daphne M. Hoffman. New York: Wittenborn, Schultz, Inc., New York, 1947. 

Jessica Backus