Born in Hungary and trained in technical schools there in photolithographic printing processes, Nickolas Muray was hired by Conde Nast in 1913 to work on the preparation of the illustrations for Vogue and Vanity Fair magazines. In 1920 he opened a spartan studio on the third floor of a townhouse at 129 MacDougal Street in Greenwich Village. A bon vivant, athlete, and wit capable of punning in three languages, Muray immediately became a fixture among the writers, artists, and theatrical personalities of the city. Frank Crowninshield, editor of Vanity Fair, hailed him as the great new talent in photography, laudable for his ability to capture dynamic people in moments of their greatest vitality. His photographs appeared regularly in many magazines, including Harpers Bazaar, Photoplay, and The Theatre. Vanity Fair itself devoted 158 pages to his photos from 1920 to 1934.
Using minimal props and background, Muray made the subject the whole matter of his portraits. His nudes were expressionist in their torsion, the stylistic antithesis of Alfred Cheney Johnston's. One of the great lovers of the period between the wars, he had affairs with numbers of the most brilliant women of the era, including Martha Graham and Frida Khalo. He competed in sabre for the 1928 and 1932 U. S. Olympic teams. The physicality, indeed carnality, of his life was mirrored in the palpable, three-dimensional fleshly humanity of his subjects throughout the 1920s and early 1930s.
After the market crash, he turned away from celebrity and theatrical portraiture, and became a pioneering commercial photographer, famous for his creation of many of the conventions of color advertising. He was considered the master of the carbro process. His last important public portraits were of Dwight David Eisenhower in the 1950s. His photographs were donated to the George Eastman House archive.
NOTES: In 1967 Paul Gallico edited a collection of Muray's portraits, THE REVEALING EYE, PERSONALITIES OF THE 1920s, (Atheneum Publishers). David S. Shields/ALS
Nickolas Muray supplied a succinct description of his methods and aesthetic aims in James Wallace Gillies Principles of Pictorial Photography-1923. "I believe in the use of the soft focus lens, quick exposure, and a sensible use of the retouching pencil . . . I favor the soft focus lens because personally I am well satisfied in obtaining a pleasing, general effect as opposed to representing a subject in all its minutest detail. I am not arguing against showing detail or, for example, the necessary lines in a face which denote character, but I am not concerned with the number or distinctness of the pores in a sitter's face. I want my impression of people as seen through my own eyes at a reasonable distance and not through a magnifying glass. Nor do I desire to see them through a haze. Therefore, I don't strive for fuzziness or dimness in a picture. The soft focus lens: yes, but used intelligently. A face clear and characterful and neither befogged or 'hair-line' sharp is the effect I try to achieve. For expediency I prefer the soft focus lens for its depth of field. I want the ear of my sitter to be as well defined as the tip of his nose, the hand on his knee as clear as his shoulder. I adocate the short-time exposure. My idea of a well equipped studio is one where I can get a great amount of light properly placed and controlled cutting my exposure down to a minimum. It is contended that with a comparatively quick exposure the same results are not obtainable as with a longer exposure; as for example, the character in the face of a sitter will lose in value in the former case. Scan, if you please, some of the pictures of the days of the head-rest and clamps and note the character depicted on the faces. If tenseness and a set express exemplifying character then I admit I am at fault. With a short exposure a fleeting glance, a twinkle of the eye, or a momentary mood is caught and this tells us more of a sitter than ten or twenty seconds of concentrated staring and tense muscles . . . I am also in favor of the intelligent use of the retouching pencil. No matter how sincere we may be in our art we still have to be photographically true to the sitter. If, by any chance, our subject has a well-rounded face with red cheeks, an unretouched negative would show these spots of red as hollow. If our plates lie to us we are duty bound to our sitter to rectify the error. The sitter isn't at all interested in the fact that red photographs black, and a few strokes of the retouching pencil will transform the sunken cheeks to their natural roundness. Besides, the average lens is unfriendly and unnecessarily severe in reproducing the human face. Ordinary blemishes are accentuated to a point beyond truth." (42-44)