Man Ray Photographs Marcel Proust’s Corpse

In A New York Life: Of Friends and Others, Brendan Gill provides a short profile of the artist Man Ray, who was born in Philadelphia in 1890. One of Ray’s most famous photos was of the newly dead writer Marcel Proust. Ray explains to Gill how that photo came about. An excerpt:

“As one  of those innumerable visitors to the shrine on the rue Férou, I asked Man Ray about his well-known photograph of Proust’s corpse, the eyes lying sunk into his skull, the chin and cheeks unshaven–never had a body looked more intensely (one might even say, Proust being Proust, more intently) dead–and he told me that it was Cocteau who had arranged for him to take it.

The year was 1922, a short while after Man Ray and Cocteau had met. As Man Ray told the story, surely not for the first time and surely not for the last, his telephone rang one Sunday morning, and it was Cocteau babbling in a high, distressed voice, “Venez toute de suite! Notre petit Marcel est mort!” Man Ray picked up what he called his ‘old shoe’ of a camera and made his way to Proust’s apartment, to which Cocteau admitted him.

The only available light came from a single electric light bulb of low wattage directly above Proust’s bed. Had that made it difficult, I inquired, to take the picture? The little god in his attic looked at me with good-humored scorn. ‘Certainly not!’ he exclaimed. ‘A corpse is the easiest thing in the world to photograph. The subject being motionless. I was able to set my camera for as long an exposure as I pleased. The results were, let me say, satisfactory.'”

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