Man Ray

- My photographer is Man Ray. I’m only going to go through the most important parts of his biography as his life was very well documented; he even wrote an autobiography.
- Man Ray was a Dadaist, a surrealist, and portrait-artist, and a fashion photographer. Man Ray was also a real jack-of-all-trades: “Man Ray has been [a] painter, sculptor, maker of collages and objects, architectural draughtsman, designer, printmaker, chess player, writer, photographer, pioneer of avant-garde film, [and] inventor.” (Langsner 2)
- The reason he went through so many different methods of expressionism was because he believed that “there is no progress in art.” (Baldwin 25)
- He was born Emmanuel Radnitzky in 1890 in Philadelphia and died about 35 years ago in 1976 in Paris, France.
- He was a man with an “unruly spirit” (Penrose 16) and when he was only seven years old, he declared that he wanted to be an artist. (Langsner 2) This is also when his family made the move from Philadelphia to Brooklyn.
- He is so highly regarded as an artist that he has been compared to Adam, the first man, in terms of his family history: “No one has ever managed to elicit from [Man Ray] the history of his family, which he affirms is long forgotten….One has the impression that, like Adam, Man Ray was the first of his race.” (Penrose 9)
- There are two curious facts about his childhood further planted the idea in his mind of being an artist:
o “…with an awakening taste for experiment, he deliberately smeared all over his face the wet paint from the newly decorated doors of his home. His delight in this early and daring use of paint, and the ‘cold blooded whipping’ from his father that followed, remained in his memory. The criticism his ideas were bound to provoke, however, was in general to act on him as a stimulus rather than as a deterrent.” (Penrose 12)
o He was given a box of crayons for his birthday, around the time when the U.S. battleship Maine sunk in the Cuban War. Man Ray would recreate a black and white photo of the incident with his crayons: “He enjoyed the freedom of creating his own version, in colors so daring that they brought immediate reproach from those who thought they knew better.” (Penrose 13)
- Man Ray originally wanted to become a painter, yet declined a scholarship in architecture and instead took an art class. (Penrose 15-16) In the beginning, he worked with life and abstraction. However, the art class did not please him, he wanted to draw real woman but was told the beginner classes would only work with plaster casts. (Penrose 16)
- Then in 1911, Man Ray started visiting Alfred Stieglitz’s (Jenesse’s photographer) 291 exhibition on his lunch hour every day. He was dazzled by Stieglitz’s photographs, and commented on them in this way: “[They are] free of anecdote and cheap sentiment. They remained intensely figurative in contrast to the painting and sculpture he exhibited. I could not help thinking that since photography had liberated the modern painter from the drudgery of faithful representation, this field would become the exclusive one of photography, helping it to become an art in its own right.” (Penrose 21) They soon developed a friendship and Man Ray started going to art classes and lectures at the Ferrer Modern School. However, despite his fascination with Stieglitz’s photographs, Man Ray still had the desire to become a painter. The only photography he had done up to this point was taking pictures of his works with a Brownie camera, simply to record them. (Baldwin 24) Stieglitz was only one of his influences, another mentionable one is Robert Henri (cover, Baldwin) as well as Pablo Picasso later on in his life. (Naef 76)
- His first one-man painting exhibition was in 1915, but his second one in 1916, with one of his first known photographs called Self Portrait. While he was in New York, he experimented with different methods of creating art, such as using an airbrush. (Naef 44)
- He soon became known as “the lonely and strenuous defender of the Dada spirit in New York” (Schwarz 54)
- Arturo Schwarz has a very interesting description of Ray’s blend of Dada: “Man Ray’s particular blend of Dada is unique. It is an equal mixture of Picabia’s love of paradox and Cravan’s nihilism with larger quantities of Jarryesque humour and Duchampian noncommitment, plus a cooling dash of American pragmatism. Man Ray’s technical and scientific background and his love for precision and perfection add the final ingredients of this explosive cocktail….he is among the few Dadaists to remain faithful to the original Dada premises throughout their lives.” (Schwarz 51)
- During his early years in the US, the Dada movement in Europe was expanding. It was not expanding so well in the States. (Schwarz 51) No one was really doing Dada except Man Ray! (Schwarz 52) Even Stieglitz didn’t do Dada, he “was prompted by the desire to show the European avant-garde rather than to take a militant stand by backing a single movement” (Schwarz 53) like Dada.
- So, with the lack of other Dada artists in New York and the blooming of Dada in Europe, Man Ray left for Paris.
- Man Ray lived in Paris from 1921-1940, and then again from 1951 until his death. Man Ray really thought of Paris as home. (Baum 2)
- In his early Paris years, he concentrated on creating pictures with the camera (rayographs), fashion photographs, portraiture, and even things like glass negatives. (Naef 44)
- This is undoubtedly where he did most of his work.
- Man Ray did so many portraits in Paris, there is a whole book dedicated to them, and this part of his work is what I’m mostly going to be discussing. He photographed many different Dadaists, surrealists, basically the celebrities of the time. One might ask how we was able to become so popular so quickly. It wasn’t because of his love of socialization as he was a “lone wolf” (Baum 4) and Timothy Baum sums it up quite nicely: “Prior to Man Ray’s arrival, the main manner in which to have your personal portrait done was to don your best suit…and sit solemnly in the chair at one the vanity photographic studios….[The result was] a stiff-backed, overly-posed, somewhat agonizing experience….A visit chez Man Ray was entirely another experience.” (Baum 3) So essentially, these portraits must have been somewhat posed, but in a natural way. When I look at some of these portraits, they feel very relaxed and natural. These people seem to trust Man Ray very much, especially since for a lot of his subjects, he photographed them when they had just started their careers, a very vulnerable moment.
- Baum also mentions that Man Ray did not just simply take photographs, he created them, and no two sittings were alike. (Baum 3) Clearly, Man Ray revolutionized portraiture when he arrived in Paris and photographed an endless number of people.
- Man Ray “became an integral member of the Paris Dada group” (Baum 1) by the end of 1921 and became a Vanity Fair photographer in 1922.
- His solarized works from his time in Paris are interesting. As Baum mentioned, this is a good example of when his love for photography as well as painting came through.
- It was when Man Ray was living in Paris that the Dada movement began to die and surrealism became its successor.
- Man Ray and Duchamp did a few surrealist exhibitions together, one in 1938. (Schwarz 56) Man Ray even experimented in surrealist films from 1923-1929 and made four complete films. (Schwarz 286)
- It was also in Paris that Man Ray met and photographed one of his favourite subjects and his eventual lover, Kiki De Montparnasse. I will talk a little bit more about her later.
- He was the “portrait-photographer-laureate of Paris” the entire time he was there, never coming down from this position. (Baum 4) He did not want to leave Paris, but was forced to because of World War II. However, rather than moving back to New York, he moved to Hollywood in 1940 and lived there until 1951. (Penrose 145-146) This is where he met Juliet (Penrose 146), another one of his favourite subjects and his lover as well.
- He moved back to Paris in 1951. He wrote an autobiography in 1963, called Self Portrait. He died in Paris in 1976 in his studio of old age. (Baldwin 362-363)
- In terms of tools, when asked what type of camera he used in 1967, he replied: "None ! I have to modify them all. My cameras are all of my own design. I take lenses apart and put them together again and put them on cameras that were not meant for them." (Hirsch 99)
- From his earlier days such as in the teens and twenties, he probably used dry plates as those were the technology of the day in terms of photography. His works from this time are referred to as “plates” and “gelatin silver prints.” (Naef)
- For his rayographs, he did exactly what we did in Film 205 where we placed objects on photosensitive paper and exposed the paper and objects to light.
- He did admit to retouching his photographs. He said in an interview, “"Oh, yes, I was a great retoucher. A retoucher is an esthetic surgeon !" (Hirsch 99)
- Solarization was a manipulation he used often.

- I am now going to show you some of Man Ray’s most famous works and talk a little bit about the aesthetics as well as some of their purposes.
- This is Violon D’Ingres from 1924. I found that in a lot of his work, the background is usually unimportant, and this portrait is no exception. Kiki is the model here. It’s erotic. It appeared in a Dada anthology as well as in a Surrealist journal. The photo certainly does follow Dada, although Dada really has no rules. It does mock classical painting and objectifies Kiki as a violin (Naef 40). The aesthetics really don’t matter here so much as the purpose does; to go against the norm.
- This is Larmes from between 1930 and 1932. This is another mocking piece of art, and Naef describes it very well in a way I absolutely agree with and something I think goes for most of his portraits: “The picture is a metaphor for the artificiality of art making, a scene that is staged for the camera, a device renowned for its truthfulness….To the Surrealists, the eye was an important symbol of inner vision, a concept central to their philosophy. For Man Ray, it seems to have had a more personal identification as well.” (Naef 56)
- This is a set called “Noire et Blanche” from 1926. This set can actually be considered a fashion photograph as this one [the one of her with her head on the table] was in Vogue in the May 1926 issue. This is Kiki again with an African ceremonial mask. There’s lots of great contrast here, both aesthetically with the black and white faces, but also with the contrasts of a living and inanimate woman and a traditional and a modern woman. (Naef 50) Again, this photograph has a symbol: “Masks are often used in ceremonies to signal a heightening of consciousness….The Surrealists considered this state a source of creative activity.” (Naef 50) He also did something similar in a photograph called “Juliet with Headdress”, where his other muse Juliet is wearing a Brazilian headdress, again, another contrast of cultures.
- This is a few of Man Ray’s self portraits. For these photos, I believe that most of these where taken for personal reasons rather than to convey a message to a Surrealist-interested audience. Once again, the background is meaningless, great contrast. Now, Man Ray did not do very many colour photographs, even when the option was available to him. Man Ray must have been a very self-reflective man it seems, he must have got great joy out of doing these, even with his autobiography that he wrote.
- (show Juliet compilation) These are a few portraits of Juliet. Juliet was Man Ray’s wife. Usually, photographs of her show her beauty (Naef 98), as we can see here. Juliet was “the most enduring and perhaps the most pliable” (Naef 98) of Man Ray’s models. We can see here that she indeed played a lot of different roles for Man Ray, from a fashion photo-esque model to an almost inanimate looking mannequin. Once, again, the backgrounds are plain and the focus is front and centre.

- Eroticism was a common theme in some of his portraits, especially with Kiki and Juliet (show Kiki erotic), but they focused more on beauty
- Self portraits
- Surrealism
- Fashion, I will show you some of his fashion photographs now (show fashion compilation), he still did a lot of experimenting even though these were likely commissioned. He very much liked to show the beauty in people, especially women.
- Man Ray had a particular interest in faces and he dreamed as a young man of becoming a celebrated portrait painter. (Penrose 28)
- I believe that most of these photos were taken to give an artistic message and to go against the norm, as both Dada and Surrealism do. Some of the fashion photographs he took were no doubt commissioned, but they are an exception in terms of the purpose only. However, his fashion photographs do often go against the norm with solarization, etc.
- I also believe that a lot of these photos are for personal reasons. Being the self-reflective man he seemed to be, it’s no wonder Man Ray took so many pictures of Kiki and Juliet (as they were both his lovers), and of course his self-portraits.
- I also found a very good description of why Man Ray used photography as a means of expression: “In the age of the machine, photography was seen as a machine-like process manufacturing objective truths purged of subjectivity and emotion. But, for Man Ray, the camera was not a machine for making documents but an instrument for exploring dreams, desires and the medium's unconscious mind.” (Genius of Photography)

Works Cited

Baldwin, Neil. Man Ray: American Artist. New York: Clarkson N. Potter, 1988.
Baum, Timothy. Man Ray’s Paris Portraits: 1921-39. Washington: Middendorf Gallery, 1989.
“Genius of Photography: Documents for Artists, Man Ray.” Online posting. Oct. 2007. British Broadcasting Corporation. 20 Mar. 2011 <>.
Hirsch, Ed and Ben Zar. “Man Ray on the Future!” Popular Photography 60.1 (1967): 99.
Langsner, Jules. “About Man Ray: An Introduction.” Los Angeles County Museum of Art: Man Ray. Los Angeles: Los Angeles County Museum of Art, 1966.
Martin, Jean-Hubert. Man Ray Photographs. New York: Thames and Hudson, 1982.
Naef, Weston. In Focus: Man Ray, Photographs from The J. Paul Getty Museum. Los Angeles: The J. Paul Getty Museum, 1998.
Penrose, Roland. Man Ray. Boston: New York Graphic Society, 1975.
Schwarz, Arturo. Man Ray: The Rigour of Imagination. New York: Rizzoli International Publications, Inc., 1977.