Books

Bringing Back from Obscurity a Jamaican Photographer Who Worked with Duchamp

Enacting a posthumous reassessment, the book Percy Rainford: Duchamp’s “Invisible” Photographer has poignantly rescued the neglected artist Percy Rainford from erasure.

The cover of Percy Rainford: Duchamp’s “Invisible” Photographer (all images courtesy L’association Kunsthalle Marcel Duchamp)

Enacting a posthumous reassessment, the book Percy Rainford: Duchamp’s “Invisible” Photographer has poignantly rescued the neglected Jamaican artist Percy Rainford (1901–1976) from erasure. In this mouthwatering, mango-colored, small ­hardcover, the Duchamp scholar and chief curator at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, Michael R. Taylor, brings forth, just in time for Black History Month, the life of this documented alien resident’s unique experience executing commissioned photo projects in New York for Marcel Duchamp in the 1940s and ‘50s during the prickly Jim Crow era.

Maintaining a judiciously fair tack around clickbait accusations, Taylor reveals that between 1945 and 1956 Rainford worked as a commercial art photographer on a number of previously under-documented art projects with Duchamp, including the famous fictional, photographic self-portrait made for a special Duchamp issue of View magazine. Through Rainford’s technical mastery as visual interlocutor, this important photo image depicts the deceptive Duchamp (according to the caption) at the age of 85, next to a portrait taken by Alfred Steiglitz which was falsely dated 1922 and actually snapped in 1923. In reality, Duchamp was at the time only 58 years old, and he died at the age of 81. This zigzag semblance, along with Man Ray’s series of Duchamp cross-dressed as Rrose Sélavy, are benchmark pieces in the historical path of conceptual-fictional self-portraiture trailed by Urs Lüthi, Claude Cahun, Marcel Bascoulard, and Cindy Sherman, among others.

Alfred Steiglitz, “Marcel Duchamp” (1923) falsely dated 1922 (left); Percy Rainford, “Marcel Duchamp at the Age of 85” (1945) fictional photographic portrait of Duchamp (right)

Michael Taylor performs this affecting salvation of Rainford through copious illustrations, extensive direct interviews with Rainford’s remaining family members, and significant archival investigations, foremost among these, the archive of architect, theoretician, and theater designer Frederick John Kiesler.

Through exhaustive research, Taylor discovered that the noble and modest Rainford grew up in the parish of St. Andrew outside of Kingston and, in 1923, at the age of 21 came to New York City on the call of his brother to work as photographer’s-assistant-cum-protégé to the avuncular if tipsy Henry Taylor (no connection to the book’s author). Taylor, after training Rainford in the art of documentary photography and darkroom skills, suavely left him the business when he perished in 1929. After overcoming a bit of repulsive racism on the loathsome building owner’s part by moving down the block on 57th Street, Rainford began a lucrative career as a commercial photographer. He shot crisp images of fine art on old fashioned, large-format, Century cameras for the Whitney Museum, MoMA, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, as well as various art magazines, newspapers, art dealers, and artists in need of prissy, high quality reproductions of paintings and sculpture.

Anonymous portrait of Percy Rainford

Duchamp first met Rainford on January 1, 1945 through Kiesler, who brought them together in his 210 West 14th Street studio to discuss work on a six-page photo spread on Duchamp for an issue of View. Kiesler’s three-panel centerpiece “Les Larves D’Imagie D’Henri Robert Marcel Duchamp” (1945) is a masterpiece of photomontage. However, the credits probably should have included Rainford, even though he was paid for his work (two years later). The centerpiece, Rainford’s masterfully darkroom-concocted image “Portrait of Marcel Duchamp” (1945), is reproduced in the book in various gonzo versions. Reading about the complex compositional symbolism in these linked labyrinthine, staged portraits is a pronounced pleasure. Rainford also shot 11 images of Duchamp’s messy studio sans artist that are also included in this powerpack tome.

Rainford’s images of Duchamp in his studio

A decade later, in 1956, Duchamp went back to Rainford to work with him on the first issue of Le Surréalisme, même, which featured on the cover Duchamp’s “Female Fig Leaf” (1950) manipulated and refigured by Rainford and Duchamp. On Duchamp’s instructions, he photographed the concave plaster form upside-down after lighting it to appear convex. Thus, with the resulting inverted chiaroscuro, the object took on the appearance of a post-coital shaved vulva dripping honey. This suggestion is enhanced by Rainford’s use of darkroom dodging and burning to isolate the suggestive form on a field of pure black, and by the overcast yellow Duchamp chose to tint the virtuoso image with.

The book then starts to shift gears with pages on Rainford’s charming family photos and his documentary photographs of Kiesler’s “Endless House” (1959). As an epilogue, it closes with a satisfying click on Kiesler’s March 10, 1959 diary entry concerning his professional interactions with Rainford.

Rainford’s photographs used to create “Les Larves D’image D’henri Robert Marcel Duchamp,” photomontage (1945)

Before Taylor’s investigation of Rainford ensued, close to nothing was known (outside Rainford’s family) of Rainford’s work with Duchamp and Kiesler. Now that Rainford is publicly known, Duchamp scholars are whirling their propellers. Taylor himself closes his book by indulging in some swirling speculation: He attributes Duchamp’s contact with Rainford to Duchamp’s choice of a cropped image of a black couple kissing (from an Alexander Hackenschmied film still) for the brochure Duchamp designed for the Julien Levy Gallery 1945 exhibition Man Ray: Objects of My Affection. Next and lastly, with pizzicato embellishment, Taylor slots Rainford’s photographic commissions into D. Scot Miller’s 2009 AfroSurreal Manifesto that itself built on Amiri Baraka’s aesthetic designate “Afro-Surreal Expressionism” and Ralph Ellison’s character Rinehart the Runner in the 1952 classic novel Invisible Man. Thanks to L’association Kunsthalle Marcel Duchamp and Michael R. Taylor, Percy Rainford is invisible no longer.

Percy Rainford: Duchamp’s “Invisible” Photographer is written by Michael R. Taylor with a text by Frederick Kiesler, and edited by Stefan Banz. It was published in January by L’association Kunsthalle Marcel Duchamp (KMD) as number 23 in Les Éditions KMD and co-published by Verlag für moderne Kunst and Les presses du reel.

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