Of course, there will always be those who look only at technique, who ask ‘how’, while others of a more curious nature will ask ‘why’. Personally, I have always preferred inspiration to information.
– Man Ray
Man Ray (Emmanuel Radnitzky; 1890 – 1976) 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 photography, and he was a renowned fashion and portrait photographer. Man Ray is also noted for his work with photograms, which he called “rayographs” in reference to himself. Man Ray expanded the horizons of photography well beyond its representational means, and through relentless darkroom experimentation, liberated that medium from its place as a mirror to nature. Man Ray’s manipulated images are widely considered the origins of Surrealism in photography, existing in an obscure realm between reality and the subconscious.
The son of Jewish immigrants—his father was a tailor and his mother a seamstress—Radnitzky grew up in New York City, where he studied architecture, engineering, and art, and became a painter. As early as 1911, he took up the pseudonym of Man Ray. Growing up in Brooklyn as an immigrant, Emmanuel Radnitzky stole tubes of paint from a local art supply store, but had no remorse because of the nobility of the cause: “I consider the painting of a picture the acme of human accomplishment.” Man Ray began making photographs in New York in 1915, as a struggling 25-year-old painter. He did this initially merely to document his paintings, but he quickly mastered the techniques, and soon began to earn money by taking portraits. In 1921 Man Ray moved to Paris and became associated with the Parisian Dada and Surrealist circles of artists and writers. Inspired by the liberation promoted by these groups, he experimented with many media. His experiments with photography included rediscovering how to make “cameraless” pictures, or photograms, which he called rayographs. He made them by placing objects directly on light-sensitive paper, which he exposed to light and developed.
What is striking throughout Man Ray Portraits is the realization of the extent to which we have seen Parisian society through Man Ray’s eyes and lens. Not only are the people in his photographs familiar, but so are the images: his portraits of Picasso, Braque, Duchamp, Hemingway, Joyce, Breton, Schoenberg, Stein, and dozens of other luminaries are among the most celebrated and familiar images of these figures. For Man Ray’s portraits, the late ‘20s and the ‘30s brought greater theatricality and playfulness. In 1929, with his lover, photographer, and model Lee Miller, Man Ray also experimented with the technique called solarization, which renders part of a photographic image negative and part positive by exposing a print or negative to a flash of light during development. He and Miller were among the first artists to use the process, known since the 1840s, for aesthetic purposes.
Man Ray also pursued fashion and portrait photography and made a virtually complete photographic record of the celebrities of Parisian cultural life during the 1920s and ’30s. Many of his photographs were published in magazines such as Harper’s Bazaar, Vu, and Vogue. He continued his experiments with photography through the genre of portraiture. Man Ray also made films. In 1940 Man Ray escaped the German occupation of Paris by moving to Los Angeles. Returning to Paris in 1946, he continued to paint and experiment until his death. His autobiography, Self-Portrait, was published in 1963 (reprinted 1999).
In 2017, Man Ray’s Noire et Blanche (1926), was purchased at Christie’s Paris for 2.6 million euros/$3,120,658, becoming the 14th most expensive photograph to ever sell at auction. This was a record not only for Man Ray’s work in the photographic medium but also for the sale at auction of any vintage photographs.