A talented photographer, Nickolas Muray is known for his commercial images and for his numerous portraits, of some of the twentieth century’s best-known performers on the stage and screen such as Greta Garbo, Charlie Chaplin, and Fred Astaire. He was also a championship-winning fencer who played on the U.S. team at the 1928 and 1932 Olympic Games. The son of a postal worker, Muray studied sculpture for a time before leaving school to go to work as an engraver.
After spending a few years in Germany, Muray moved to the United States in 1913, knowing about 50 words of English and carrying an International Engravers Certificate. He settled in New York City, finding work as a color separator and engraver for a Brooklyn company. In his own time, Muray began to study photography. Using a shared studio in New York’s Greenwich Village neighborhood, he started to build his own photography business. Landing his first big break, Muray sold a portrait of actress Florence Reed to Harper’s Bazaar in 1920.
Nearly overnight, Muray became an in-demand celebrity photographer, handling assignments from many leading publications. In 1926, Vanity Fair sent him to Europe to photograph the likes of artist Claude Monet and writer George Bernard Shaw. Muray also captured many other famous faces for other projects, ranging from dancer and choreographer Martha Graham to Presidents Calvin Coolidge, Herbert Hoover, F.D.R. and Dwight D. Eisenhower.
Working with public relations manager Edward L. Bernays, he created many iconic commercial images for Bernays’ clients, such as Lucky Strike cigarettes. In 1930, he was given a contract with the publishing company behind the Ladies Home Journal, which resulted in his creation of the first natural color commercial photograph to appear in a U.S. magazine the following year.
Around this time, Muray met Mexican artist Frida Kahlo. The two developed an on- and off-again relationship that spanned a decade. It outlasted his third marriage to Monica O’Shea, whom he married in 1930. In 1937, Monica divorced Muray on the grounds of cruelty according to a report in The New York Times.
During most of their relationship, Kahlo was married to Mexican muralist Diego Rivera who also had a number of extramarital affairs. When Kahlo divorced Rivera in 1939, Muray hoped that he would be able to marry her. Those hopes were soon dashed—she remarried Rivera the following year. Despite his disappointment, Muray remained on friendly terms with Kahlo. He took numerous portraits and photographs of Kahlo over years, some of which used the Carbro technique, a type of carbon pigment process for making color prints which he perfected.
During his career, Muray took more than 10,000 portraits and did countless commercial photography projects. He worked on advertisements for such companies as General Electric, Sara Lee, American Cyanamid, and Kraft.