Muses. Can’t live with ’em, can’t live without ’em. That is, not without a fair degree of drama, and especially if you happened to fall into a romantic tornado with miss Frida Kahlo. For a lover to pull Frida out of orbit from Diego – the heartbeat of her world – he or she had to be pretty spectacular, talented, and totally weird. Brave, and loyal. In other words, they had to be Nickolas “Nick” Muray. Over the course of one fiery decade, the photographer stayed by her side as a lover and confidant matched only by Diego himself. In the end, of course, Diego won – but Nick found a clever way of immortalising his relationship with Frida. As a professional photographer, he took more photos of Frida that anyone else on the scene, from portraits at Casa Azul, to that iconic Vogue cover. To think that all this time, we’ve been unknowingly privy to one of the most intense visual love letters in history…
With only $25 and an English dictionary to his name, Nick left his native Hungary for the shores of Ellis Island in 1914. There, at the gateway between old and new, he shed his past as “Miklos Murai”, and “Nickolas Muray” was born. He found a gig in Greenpoint, Brooklyn at Stockinger Printing Co. in engraving and colour separation, and a cheap apartment at 129 MacDougal Street in Greenwich Village. He could barely afford electricity, and only turned more than one light on when he had guests. Still, it looks like he had good natural light:
One of the reasons Nick left Europe was the rampant antisemitism. In America he felt he could take all of the skills he’d learned from his prestigious Fine Arts training in Budapest and Berlin, and put them to use without running into nearly as many discriminatory hurtles. Here, he was just “Nick”. He enrolled in an English night class, and began to hold court at his little studio with creatives in the Village. He was charismatic and social, but the quality of Nick’s photography was all the leverage he needed to get the attention of big clients in fashion and advertising. Even in the most mundane of assignments, he imbued his subjects with a sense of confidence and sensuality.
“He photographed everyone and everything,” with just as much vitality, explains his trust, “from presidents to pea soup”. James Joyce, George Marilyn Monroe, even Claude Monet – everyone wanted a portrait by Nick, who, like Frida, had a way of capturing so much intimacy in a single frame. The world of colour photography brought an entirely new dimension to his work, with saturated jewel tone shades with a bit of a Lynchian aura about them.
In 1932, the two artists finally met through a mutual friend whilst Nick was on holiday in Mexico. It was a chance encounter, as Frida was supposed to be in San Francisco with Diego. It was kismit.
Frida and Diego had an infamously tumultuous relationship, and by the time Nick met Frida, he was already thrice-divorced, and had cultivated a reputation as an arty, international playboy of sorts; not only was he a photographer to the stars, but a pilot and olympic level fencer. Still, he was a die-hard romantic. When asked years later by his daughter if he had loved many women, he said “Yes. But only one at a time”. Timing was everything, for better and for worse. When Frida and Nick met, they lucked out.
As author Salomon Grimberg notes in I Will Never Forget You: Frida Kahlo and Nickolas Muray, Nick didn’t take any photos during his stay in Mexico, which was very out of character. Perhaps it’s because he was busy falling for Frida, who gave him one of the most confusing mementos ever when he had to return to New York. ” Nick,” she scrawled on a piece of paper, “I love you like I would love an angel. You are a Lillie of the valley of love. I will never forget you, never, never. You are my whole life. I hope you will never forget this — Frida“. Opposite her words of love, however, was the sketch of a portrait of her and Diego. There’s also note at the bottom reading, “Please come to Mexico as you promised me!” She seals it with a red kiss, writing “This is specially for the back of your neck”.
Mixed signals, perhaps, but Nick was just as crazy about Frida. They continued their correspondence, with the two travelling back and forth from opposite ends of the continent to meet. He even snapped pics of Frida and Diego together. Awkward? You be the judge:
When Frida came to NYC in 1938, it was Nick who took those immortalising portraits. It was Nick who captured the Frida he loved for the world to see…
It’s safe to say Frida also found a creative kindred spirit in Nick, who didn’t have any of the pretension of Andre Breton and his Surrealist boys club. “You have no idea the kind of bitches these people are,” she wrote Nick in 1939, “They make me vomit. They are so damn ‘intelectual’ and rotten that I can’t stand them any more. It is really too much for my character- I rather sit and sell tortillas, than to have any thing to do with those ‘Artistic’ bitches of Paris…To hell with everything concerning Breton and all this lousy place. I want to go back to you. I miss every movement of your being, your voice, your eyes, your hands, your beautiful mouth, your laugh so clear and honest. YOU. I love you my Nick. I am so happy to think I love you – to think you wait for me – you love me.”
Still, for every part of herself given to Nick, there was twofold waiting for Diego. Even when Frida first met Nick, explains Salomon Grimberg in his book, it was on the heels heartbreak (yet another of Diego’s affairs). When Frida’s divorce with Diego was finalised in 1939, Nick was under the impression that Kahlo and himself could finally marry themselves. Ultimately, Frida couldn’t let go of Diego. This photo, which was taken in 1940 by Nick, must have been hard to snap – was he thinking, “This is it — next time, it’s going to be me in that chair”?
The relationship ended in 1941, but the two remained the closest of friends. For the rest of his days, Nick never quite let go of Frida, and his daughter often wondered why their house was a practically wallpapered with her art. Countless celebrities and politicians would step in front of Nick’s camera over the years, but none quite like Frida.”I adore you, my love,” Frida told him, “believe me like I never loved anyone – only Diego will be in my heart as close as you– always”. Talk about the one that got away.