Man Ray and the Art of Photograms

Portrait of Man Ray and Salvador Dali, Paris
by Carl Van Vechten

On August 27, 1890, American modernist artist and photographer Emmanuel Radnitzky was born, better known as Man Ray. A significant contributor to the Dadaist and Surrealist movement, Man Ray produced major works in a variety of media but considered himself a painter above all. He was best known for his photography, and he was a renowned fashion and portrait photographer.

Man Ray, born as Emmanuel Radnitzky, and grew up in Brooklyn, New York. During the 1910s, the entire family changed their surname to Ray and Emmanuel also changed his first name to Man while many referred to him as ‘Manny’. His family was mostly active in tailoring and also the children, including Man Ray, where included in the business. During his years in school, Man Ray also educated himself with museum visits where he studied numerous art works. Despite the fact, that the young Man Ray was offered a scholarship to study architecture, Man Ray already chose to become an artist. In his family’s apartment, he established his studio and it is believed, that he stayed there for about four years. To finance his dream, Ray became a technical illustrator in Manhattan.

Even though Man Ray lived in New York City, he was mostly influenced by contemporary European works and his works showed many aspects of cubism. Also, Marcel Duchamp increased his interest in the movement of figures. His first known solo show took place in 1915 and one year later, Ray‘s first proto-Dada object, an assemblage titled Self-Portrait, was exhibited. The artist highly increased his interest in dadaism in this period, and he began creating mechanical and photographic methods of producing images. For instance, he combined a spray-gun with pen drawing. In 1920, he founded along with Duchamp, and Katherine Dreier the Société Anonyme, which became probably the first museum of modern art in the United States.

Starting from 1921, Man Ray made his living in Paris and he increased his overall influence in the field of photography. Famous artists like James Joyce, Gertrude Stein, Jean Cocteau, Bridget Bate Tichenor, and Antonin Artaud, posed for Man Ray and his camera. In the 1930s, surrealist artist Méret Oppenheim posed nude for Ray in a famous photography series. Ray also created a photogram he named ‘rayographs’ he used to describe as ‘pure dadaism’. But, next to his ambitions in photography, the artist also directed a series of short films, which became known as Cinéma Pur.

In the 1960s, Man Ray published his autobiography, which was again republished in 1999. He passed away in November 1976 and his wife, Juliet, organized a trust for his work and donated much of his work to museums.

At yovisto, you may be interested in a video lecture on Dadaism and Duchamp by David Joselit.

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