(born Emmanuel Radnitzky) was an American visual artist who spent most of his career in Paris. He was a significant contributor to the Dada and Surrealist movements, although his ties to each were informal. He produced major works in a variety of media but considered himself a painter above all. He was best known for his pioneering photography, and was a renowned fashion and portrait photographer. He is also noted for his work with photograms, which he called "rayographs"
in reference to himself.
During his career, Man Ray allowed few details of his early life or family background to be known to the public. He even refused to acknowledge that he ever had a name other than Man Ray. Man Ray's birth name was Emmanuel Radnitzky. He was born in South Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, on August 27, 1890. He was the eldest child of Russian Jewish immigrants Melach "Max" Radnitzky, a tailor, and Manya "Minnie" Radnitzky (née Lourie or Luria). He had a brother, Sam, and two sisters, Dorothy "Dora" and Essie (or Elsie), the youngest born in 1897 shortly after they settled at 372 Debevoise St. in the Williamsburg neighborhood of Brooklyn, New York. In early 1912, the Radnitzky family changed their surname to Ray. Man Ray's brother chose the surname in reaction to the ethnic discrimination and antisemitism prevalent at the time. Emmanuel, who was called "Manny"
as a nickname, changed his first name to Man and gradually began to use Man Ray as his name.
I photograph what I do not wish to paint and I paint what I cannot photograph.
-- Man Ray
Man Ray's father worked in a garment factory and ran a small tailoring business out of the family home. He enlisted his children to assist him from an early age. Man Ray's mother enjoyed designing the family's clothes and inventing patchwork items from scraps of fabric. Man Ray wished to disassociate himself from his family background, but their tailoring left an enduring mark on his art. Mannequins, flat irons, sewing machines, needles, pins, threads, swatches of fabric, and other items related to tailoring appear in almost every medium of his work. Art historians have noted similarities between Ray's collage and painting techniques and styles used for tailoring.
His education at Brooklyn's Boys' High School from 1904 to 1909 provided him with solid grounding in drafting and other basic art techniques. While he attended school, he educated himself with frequent visits to the local art museums, where he studied the works of the Old Masters. After his graduation, Ray was offered a scholarship to study architecture but chose to pursue a career as an artist. Man Ray's parents were disappointed by their son's decision to pursue art, but they agreed to rearrange the family's modest living quarters so that Ray's room could be his studio. The artist remained in the family home over the next four years. During this time, he worked steadily towards becoming a professional painter. Man Ray earned money as a commercial artist and was a technical illustrator at several Manhattan companies.
The surviving examples of his work from this period indicate that he attempted mostly paintings and drawings in 19th-century styles. He was already an avid admirer of contemporary avant-garde art, such as the European modernists he saw at Alfred Stieglitz
's "291" gallery and works by the Ashcan School. However, with a few exceptions, he was not yet able to integrate these trends into his own work. The art classes he sporadically attended, including stints at the National Academy of Design and the Art Students League, were of little apparent benefit to him. When he enrolled in the Ferrer School in the autumn of 1912, he began a period of intense and rapid artistic development.
While living in New York City, Man Ray was influenced by the avant-garde practices of European contemporary artists he was introduced to at the 1913 Armory Show and in visits to Alfred Stieglitz's "291" art gallery. His early paintings display facets of cubism. After befriending Marcel Duchamp
, who was interested in showing movement in static paintings, his works began to depict movement of the figures. An example is the repetitive positions of the dancer's skirts in The Rope Dancer Accompanies Herself with Her Shadows
In 1915, Man Ray had his first solo show of paintings and drawings after he had taken up residence at an art colony in Grantwood, New Jersey, across the Hudson River from New York City. His first proto-Dada object, an assemblage titled Self-Portrait
, was exhibited the following year. He produced his first significant photographs in 1918, after initially picking up the camera to document his own artwork.
Man Ray abandoned conventional painting to involve himself with Dada, a radical anti-art movement. He published two Dadaist periodicals, and each only had one issue, The Ridgefield Gazook
(1915) and TNT
(1919), the latter co-edited by Adolf Wolff
and Mitchell Dawson
. He started making objects and developed unique mechanical and photographic methods of making images. For the 1918 version of Rope Dancer
, he combined a spray-gun technique with a pen drawing. Like Duchamp, he worked with readymade—ordinary objects that are selected and modified. His Gift
readymade (1921) is a flatiron with metal tacks attached to the bottom, and Enigma of Isidore Ducasse
is an unseen object (a sewing machine) wrapped in cloth and tied with cord. Aerograph
(1919), another work from this period, was done with airbrush on glass.
In 1920, Man Ray helped Duchamp make the Rotary Glass Plates
, one of the earliest examples of kinetic art. It was composed of glass plates turned by a motor. That same year, Man Ray, Katherine Dreier
, and Duchamp founded the Société Anonyme, an itinerant collection that was the first museum of modern art in the U.S. In 1941 the collection was donated to Yale University Art Gallery.
Man Ray teamed up with Duchamp to publish one issue of New York Dada in 1920. For Man Ray, Dada's experimentation was no match for the wild and chaotic streets of New York. He wrote that "Dada cannot live in New York. All New York is dada, and will not tolerate a rival."
In 1913, Man Ray met his first wife, the Belgian poet Adon Lacroix
(Donna Lecoeur) (1887–1975), in New York. They married in 1914, separated in 1919, and formally divorced in 1937.
In July 1921, Man Ray went to live and work in Paris, France. He soon settled in the Montparnasse quarter favored by many artists. His accidental rediscovery of the cameraless photogram, which he called "rayographs"
, resulted in mysterious images hailed by Tristan Tzara
as "pure Dada creations"
Shortly after arriving in Paris, he met and fell in love with Kiki de Montparnasse
(Alice Prin), an artists' model and celebrated character in Paris bohemian circles. Kiki was Man Ray's companion for most of the 1920s. She became the subject of some of his most famous photographic images, and starred in his experimental films Le Retour à la Raison
and L'Étoile de mer
In 1929, he began a love affair with the Surrealist photographer Lee Miller
. She also was his photographic assistant and together, they reinvented the photographic technique of solarization. Miller left him in 1932.
From late 1934 until August 1940, Man Ray was in a relationship with Adrienne Fidelin
. She was a Guadeloupean dancer and model and she appears in many of his photographs. When Ray fled the Nazi occupation in France, Adrienne chose to stay behind to care for her family. Unlike the artist's other significant muses, until 2022, Fidelin had largely been written out of his life story.
Man Ray was a pioneering photographer in Paris for two decades between the wars. Significant members of the art world, such as Pablo Picasso
, Tristan Tzara
, James Joyce
, Gertrude Stein
, Jean Cocteau
, Salvador Dalí
, Peggy Guggenheim
, Bridget Bate Tichenor
, Luisa Casati
, and Antonin Artaud
, posed for his camera. Man Ray's international fame as a portrait photographer is reflected in a series of photographs of Maharajah Yashwant Rao Holkar II
and his wife Sanyogita Devi
from their visit to Europe in 1927. In the winter of 1933, surrealist artist Méret Oppenheim
, known for her fur-covered teacup, posed nude for Man Ray in a well-known series of photographs depicting her standing next to a printing press.
His practice of photographing African objects in the Paris collections of Paul Guillaume
and Charles Ratton
and others led to several iconic photographs, including Noire et blanche. As Man Ray scholar Wendy A. Grossman
has illustrated, "no one was more influential in translating the vogue for African art into a Modernist photographic aesthetic than Man Ray."
Man Ray was represented in the first Surrealist exhibition with Jean Arp
, Max Ernst
, André Masson
, Joan Miró
, and Pablo Picasso
at the Galerie Pierre in Paris in 1925. Important works from this time were a metronome with an eye, originally titled Object to Be Destroyed
, and the Violon d'Ingres
, a stunning photograph of Kiki de Montparnasse, styled after the painter/musician Ingres. Violon d'Ingres is a popular example of how Man Ray could juxtapose disparate elements in his photography to generate meaning. Man Ray directed a number of influential avant-garde short films, known as Cinéma Pur
. He directed Le Retour à la Raison
(2 mins, 1923); Emak-Bakia
(16 mins, 1926); L'Étoile de Mer
(15 mins, 1928); and Les Mystères du Château de Dé
(27 mins, 1929). Man Ray also assisted Marcel Duchamp with the cinematography of his film Anemic Cinema
(1926), and Ray personally manned the camera on Fernand Léger
's Ballet Mécanique
(1924). In René Clair
's film Entr'acte
(1924), Man Ray appeared in a brief scene playing chess with Duchamp. Duchamp, Man Ray, and Francis Picabia
were all friends and collaborators, connected by their experimental, entertaining, and innovative art.
The Second World War forced Man Ray to return from Paris to the United States. He lived in Los Angeles from 1940 to 1951 where he focused his creative energy on painting. A few days after arriving in Los Angeles, he met Juliet Browner
, a first-generation American of Romanian-Jewish lineage. She was a trained dancer who studied dance with Martha Graham
, and an experienced artists' model. They married in 1946 in a double wedding with their friends Max Ernst
and Dorothea Tanning
. In 1948 Ray had a solo exhibition at the Copley Galleries in Beverly Hills, which brought together a wide array of work and featured his newly painted canvases of the Shakespearean Equations
Man Ray returned to Paris in 1951, and settled with Juliet into a studio at 2 bis rue Férou near the Luxembourg Gardens in St. Germain-des-Prés, where he continued his creative practice across mediums. During the last quarter century of his life, he returned to a number of his iconic earlier works, recreating them in new form. He also directed the production of limited-edition replicas of several of his objects, working first with Marcel Zerbib
and later Arturo Schwarz
. In 1963, he published his autobiography, Self-Portrait
(republished in 1999).
Ray continued to work on new paintings, photographs, collages and art objects till his death. Retrieved August 19, 2022. He died in Paris on November 18, 1976, from a lung infection. He was interred in the Cimetière du Montparnasse in Paris. His epitaph reads "Unconcerned, but not indifferent"
. When Juliet died in 1991, she was interred in the same tomb. Her epitaph reads "Together again"
. Juliet organized a trust for Ray's work and donated much of his work to museums. Her plans to restore the studio as a public museum proved too expensive; such was the structure's disrepair. Most of the contents were stored at the Centre Pompidou
Speaking of nudes, I have always had a great fondness for this subject, both in my paintings and in my photos, and I must admit, not for purely artistic reasons.
“I have finally freed myself from the sticky medium of paint, and am working directly with light itself.”
-- Man Ray
So enthused Man Ray in 1922, shortly after his first experiments with camera-less photography. He remains well known for these images, commonly called photograms but which he dubbed "rayographs"
in a punning combination of his own name and the word “photograph.”
Man Ray’s artistic beginnings came some years earlier, in the Dada movement. Shaped by the trauma of World War I and the emergence of a modern media culture—epitomized by advancements in communication technologies like radio and cinema—Dada artists shared a profound disillusionment with traditional modes of art making and often turned instead to experimentations with chance and spontaneity. In The Rope Dancer Accompanies Herself with Her Shadows, Man Ray based the large, color-block composition on the random arrangement of scraps of colored paper scattered on the floor. The painting evinces a number of interests that the artist would carry into his photographic work: negative space and shadows; the partial surrender of compositional decisions to accident; and, in its precise, hard-edged application of unmodulated color, the removal of traces of the artist’s hand.
In 1922, six months after he arrived in Paris from New York, Man Ray made his first rayographs. To make them, he placed objects, materials, and sometimes parts of his own or a model's body onto a sheet of photosensitized paper and exposed them to light, creating negative images. This process was not new—camera-less photographic images had been produced since the 1830s—and his experimentation with it roughly coincided with similar trials by Lázló Moholy-Nagy
. But in his photograms, Man Ray embraced the possibilities for irrational combinations and chance arrangements of objects, emphasizing the abstraction of images made in this way. He published a selection of these rayographs—including one centered around a comb, another containing a spiral of cut paper, and a third with an architect’s French curve template on its side—in a portfolio titled Champs délicieux in December 1922
, with an introduction written by the Dada leader Tristan Tzara. In 1923, with his film Le Retour à la raison
(Return to Reason), he extended the rayograph technique to moving images.
Around the same time, Man Ray’s experiments with photography carried him to the center of the emergent Surrealist movement in Paris. Led by André Breton
, Surrealism sought to reveal the uncanny coursing beneath familiar appearances in daily life. Man Ray proved well suited to this in works like Anatomies, in which, through framing and angled light, he transformed a woman’s neck into an unfamiliar, phallic form. He contributed photographs to the three major Surrealist journals throughout the 1920s and 1930s, and also constructed Surrealist objects like Gift, in which he altered a domestic tool (an iron) into an instrument of potential violence, and Indestructible Object (or Object to Be Destroyed), a metronome with a photograph of an eye affixed to its swinging arm, which was destroyed and remade several times.
Source: The Museum of Modern Art