You might recognize this 1924 photograph of his. Or this one. The American visual artist Man Ray was a significant member of Dada and Surrealist art circles in New York and Paris, and was known for his stunning photography—as well as his high-profile love affairs.
Lesser known are the details of his early life, which he withheld. Man Ray, née Emmanuel Radnitzky, was born in Philadelphia in 1890 to Russian Jewish immigrants. His family settled in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, where they eventually shortened their ethnic surname to Ray amidst anti-Semitism. Ray tried to distance himself from his parents’ line of work—his father was a professional tailor, his mother made children’s clothes—but evidence of garment tools, from flat irons to needles and thread, appear in much of his art. Perhaps best known is his 1921 readymade, The Gift, an iron lined with thumbtacks.
Ray commenced his formal study of art as a teenager. He learned drafting techniques at the Brooklyn Boys’ High School and frequented the city’s art museums to study the work of Old Masters. Upon graduation he received—but declined—a scholarship to study architecture; he wanted to become a painter. Unfortunately his paintings garnered little interest. And while he didn’t consider himself a photographer, he earned steady praise for his camera skills. Early in his career Ray made prints of the work of artist friends like Marcel Duchamp and took a handful of portraits—including one of Berenice Abbott, who later became his assistant. In 1921 he moved to Paris, where he met and photographed poet and playwright Jean Cocteau. The Frenchman was so impressed he brought his writer and musician friends to Ray’s hotel room to pose for portraits, too. Around this time Ray also met artists’ model Kiki de Montparnasse, who became his lover for most of the 1920s, and whom he also captured on film.
Ray might have stayed a portrait photographer and sometime painter had it not been for a happy accident. One night in his darkroom, a sheet of photo paper he’d put into the developer came up blank; he’d forgotten to expose it. Ray writes in his 1963 autobiography Self Portrait that, “mechanically,” he placed a glass funnel, graduate and thermometer on the wet paper. “I turned on the light; before my eyes an image began to form, not quite a simple silhouette of the objects as in a straight photograph, but distorted and refracted…”
Photograms were not entirely new. William Henry Fox Talbot created some of the first prints and nineteenth-century botanist Anna Atkins made blueprints from cyanotypes. Moreover, a year or two before Ray, German painter Christian Schad experimented with photograms, calling his results Schadographs. Nonetheless, as Ray tells it, leader of the Dadaist movement Tristan Tzara pronounced Ray’s photograms “pure Dada creations” and claimed them “far superior to similar attempts” like those of Schad. The so-called Rayographs were an instant hit. His montages—random collections of unconnected objects like scissors, springs and filmstrips—spoke to a modernist sensibility in which reality was haphazard and fractured. Ray was good at composition, too, and as this page shows, there was an elegance and beauty to his work. He went on to use human subjects in his Rayographs, including Gertrude Stein, James Joyce, and Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven. He also created memorable Surrealist images like his celebrated Le Violon d’Ingres. In 1925, Ray appeared in the first Surrealist exhibition at the Galerie Pierre in Paris with Max Ernst, Joan Miró, and Pablo Picasso.
Over the next half century, Ray worked across mediums, directing a number of avant-garde films and collaborating with his contemporaries, especially Duchamp. And while his photographic work continued to please critics, Ray always thought himself a painter.
Man Ray died in 1976 of a lung infection, but his influence endures. The latest artist to pay tribute to him is German photographer Thomas Ruff, who recently exhibited his digital photograms at the David Zwirner Gallery New York.
In November 2017, Christie’s France sold Ray’s photograph “Noir et Blanche, 1926” for over $3 million, establishing a new world record for the sale of a classic photograph.