Tales of accidental inventions are enormously crowd-pleasing. Many of these stories tend to revolve around one scientist or another who stumbled upon a discovery having bungled what he had originally sought, such as finding the color mauve while looking to cure malaria. But here’s a story that has nothing to do with bubbling formulas over a Bunsen burner but has to do with art and a mouse.

Man Ray, the great Surrealist artist, preferred painting to photography. But he knew that the advertisements and the portraits he shot of socialites, writers and other artists gained him fame, established his reputation, and kept him in white flannel pants, Breton shirts, and driving the sports cars that he favored. So when the beautiful American model Lee Miller came to Paris in 1929, it was timely for both. She wanted to swap her position in front of the camera for a place behind it; he wanted to swap his time developing his negatives for painting. Although their first encounter was rather rocky—she boldly presented herself with the demand that he teach her photography, he said, no thanks, he wasn’t a teacher; she said she would stay with him, he told her he was on his way to Biarritz for the summer; she said, “So am I,” and she followed him—by autumn, back in Paris, Man Ray and Lee Miller were in love. They stayed together for the next three years, as mentor and student, as lovers and as collaborators.

He showed her everything he knew, he taught her all about light, how it hits diverse surfaces, how to retouch photographs, whispering each trade secret. And while he sat at his easel, she worked in his darkroom. One day she was in the midst of printing, when a mouse ran across her foot. Startled she screamed and turned on the light, completely forgetting about Man Ray’s negatives, nude studies of a singer who was no longer available for another sitting, hanging in the development tank. Lee immediately called to Man and told him what had happened. He charged into the darkroom and without saying a word, he snapped off the light. In hopes of saving the negatives he tossed them into the fixer, only to look at them much later. To both his and Lee’s amazement, the interruption of the developing process caused an unexpected effect to occur. Lee described it like this: “The unexposed parts of the negative, which had been the black background, had been exposed by this sharp light that had been turned on and they had developed and came right up to the edge of the white, nude body. But the background and the image couldn’t heal together, so there was a line left which [Man] called a ‘solarization.’” [1] Also known as the Sabatier Effect—named for Sabatier, the nineteenth century doctor who had noted the process in 1862 but with limited exploration—Solarization became ‘the hallmark’ of Man Ray’s and Lee Miller’s artistic symbiosis. They would continue to experiment with the technique, trying to find ways to control it, to perfect it, influencing generations of photographers to come.

It can surely be said, photography was raised to fine art thanks to a mouse.

[1]Mark Haworth-Booth, The Art of Lee Miller, 2007.

Other sources: Carolyn Burke, Lee Miller: A Life, 2007; Lee Miller Archives.

(Image Lee Miller by Man Ray, ca. 1930, Solarized gelatin silver print, reproduced for non-commercial use only.)

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