|A renowned commercial photographer who was among the first generation of color practitioners, Nickolas Muray (1892-1965) is best known for his portraits of artist Frida Kahlo. Born in Hungary, Muray received an extensive technical education at a young age. He studied photography, photoengraving and lithography at the Graphic Arts School in Budapest and later learned the color photogravure process at the National Technical School in Berlin. After emigrating to the United States in 1913, he initially worked for Condé Nast, making color separations and half-tone negatives. In 1918 he began working as a free-lance commercial photographer and over forty years built a successful career in fashion and advertising. By 1920 Muray had opened a portrait studio in Greenwich Village and following a Harper’s Bazaar commission to photograph actress Florence Reed, was soon celebrated for his soft focus portraits of important political and cultural figures. Muray’s portraits captured people who were at the forefront of great social change including writers Eugene O’Neill, F. Scott Fitzgerald and D. H. Lawrence; political figures such Clarence Darrow, and Presidents Coolidge, Hoover and Roosevelt; Hollywood film stars Marlene Dietrich, Charlie Chaplin, and Fred Astaire; sports figures like Babe Ruth, and many others.
In 1930, after signing a four-year contract with Ladies Home Journal for color fashion photography, Muray converted his studio into one of the first color labs in the United States and became an expert in the carbro process. The carbro process produced color prints from black and white negatives. It was complex, expensive, and labor intensive, but it produced the most vivid and long-lasting color prints.
In 1931, Ladies Home Journal reproduced two color photographs that featured girls in beach wear for a swimming pool advertisement, inaugurating a new era in commercial photography.
Muray met Frida Kahlo on a 1931 trip to Mexico to visit his friend, painter and caricaturist, Miguel Covarrubias. Shortly afterwards Muray and Kahlo began a decade long affair and a friendship that would last until her death in 1954. Muray photographed Kahlo more than any other photographer from his unique perspective as lover and confidante. His portraits document her interest in indigenous Mexican culture, her life and their close circle of friends. In 1929, four years after a terrible accident that left Kahlo in pain for the rest of her life, Kahlo married renowned painter Diego Rivera who was twice her age. Rivera had a profound influence on Kahlo’s career and the image portrayed in her self-portraits. Kahlo was never able to commit to Muray and the affair ended in 1941. Muray’s best known portrait of Kahlo is, Frida with Magenta Rebozo (1939), made at the height of their affair when Kahlo was in New York to attend the opening of her exhibition at the Julian Levy Gallery.
A man of many talents, Muray was an Olympic fencer and represented the United States in fencing at the 1932 and 1936 Olympics. He was also an aviator, serving in the U.S Civilian Air Patrol during World War II and a dance critic. In 1965, Nickolas Muray died after suffering a massive heart attack while fencing. A visionary for his pioneering use of color photography and his efforts to elevate the status of advertising photography, Nickolas Muray’s photographs demonstrate a technical and creative mastery of the medium.
Nickolas Muray’s photographs are in the permanent collections of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, The Museum of Modern Art, the J. Paul Getty Museum, the George Eastman House and several other public and private American, Mexican and European collections.
Photographs by Nickolas Muray, ©Nickolas Muray Photo Archives
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