La Photographie N'est Pas L'art (“Photography is Not Art”’) is a limited edition facsimile reprint of a book that was originally published by Guy Levis-Mano in France in 1937. The book is composed of twelve loose-leaf photographs within a portfolio style slipcase and includes a short, poetic text by the surrealist artist Andre Breton entitled ‘convulsionaires’. The collection is a conceptual work that encapsulates a wide range of subject matter including fashion, nature, architecture and portraiture. Providing a provocative counterpoint to the images are counterintuitive captions that disarm and disorientate the viewer. Included within this new edition is a clear and articulate essay by the academic Herbert Molderings, in which he explores the Dadaist concepts behind the portfolio and how it was used to question conventional attitudes surrounding photography at the time. Molderings also translates and interprets the potential meanings behind the captions. In one case he states, “In placing the caption Photo de mode, ‘Collection d’hiver’ (“Fashion photo, ‘Winter Collection’”) under the photograph of a fruit tree, the fruits of which are ripening in paper bags that serve to protect them against nasty insects, Man Ray ridicules the vanities of the fashion world.”
Many of the images have an analytical banality to them but that is offset by the bizarre and often playful captions. A close up black and white photograph of a sheet of marbled paper is accompanied by an enigmatic caption that reads Couverture d’un carnet achete a un mendiant (“Cover of an exercise book bought from a beggar”). This uncanny interplay between image and caption is the crux of the collection and the pairing acts as a Dadaist exercise in free association that makes the viewer question the validity of what they are seeing. Another photograph in the vein of a natural history specimen shows a group of ants fervently scurrying around on the ground and it is captioned Ceveau bien ordonne (“Well ordered brain”). Man Ray uses the juxtaposition of a provocative title with a normalised image of insects in order to create a strange analogy between order, nature and chaos. Another image that shows two mating frogs is entitled Quand la nature fait des machines (“When nature makes machines”). This statement transforms the photograph into a surrealist motif that refers to love and mechanisation.
The portfolio is somewhat of niche item that modestly contains only twelve prints, however it is an important conceptual work and an artefact from a time when photography struggled to become a legitimate art form. The re-release of La Photographie N'est Pas L'art will bring a new audience to a work long out of print. The book highlights how Man Ray light-heartedly flaunted convention and invigorated the ways in which photography could be viewed.