History gathers dust … photographers add an extra layer to the story of a century

By Sean O'Hagan

From 9/11 to Hiroshima, from a vandal in the Louvre to the car Mussolini was dragged from, the Whitechapel's fascinating new show A Handful of Dust sees seismic events in a different light

In 1920, on a visit to Marcel Duchamp's studio in Manhattan, Man Ray's ever-curious eye was drawn to a large sheet of dust-covered glass. When viewed though his camera, its surface, he later noted, “appeared like some strange landscape from a bird's eye view”. He opened the camera's shutter and the two friends then went for lunch.

The resulting photograph, made in his absence via an exposure of around an hour, is the starting point for an intriguing exhibition, A Handful of Dust, at the Whitechapel Gallery in London. Man Ray's mysterious image, later titled Dust Breeding, had a long and curious afterlife. For a good while it was known, if at all, as a piece of surreal art rather than as a disruptive moment in photography's history: a kind of unconscious collaboration between Man Ray and Duchamp, whose arrangement of lead foil and fuse wire on two panels of glass – called The Bride Stripped Bare By Her Bachelors, Even – had been rendered almost unrecognisable by the layer of dust that so intrigued the photographer.

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