Inspired by Alfred Stieglitz’s modern art showings at 291 Gallery in 1913, he made his first expressionistic painting and officially changed his name to Man Ray. Man, representing himself, and Ray represented of a ‘ray of light’ or ‘of the sun.’ 1913 was also when Man Ray married his first wife Adon Lacroix. For seven years Man Ray worked for a publisher of maps and atlases, but continued his artistic vision publishing articles in art journals and exhibiting. He began to take photographs in 1915. Originally, he bought a camera to record his paintings, but as he began taking photographs, he learned to use it as an artistic manner. Art flourished between World War I and II, and Man Ray embraced every available aspect of expressionistic art, including the camera.
Among others, two of the major movements in art during this time were the Dada movement and the Surrealism movement. Not necessarily a theorist himself, he embraced the theories and ideas of thinkers of the day and has been given credit for advancing the theories and art of his time. Subsequently, he was given notice as an avant-garde artist known internationally. Man Ray befriended Marcel Duchamp and Moholy-Nagy and these artists remained friends and colleagues throughout their lives. He helped publish Dada journals including the New York Dada in 1921. Also in 1921, man Ray moved to Paris and made the first of what he called “Rayographs.”
Also known as photograms, these images were produced by placing objects directly onto photographic paper and then exposing them to light. The dadists believed the ordinary could be extraordinary through art and with the photograms reinvented, this fit nicely into their ideas and theories. Robert Hirsch in his book Seizing the Light: A History of Photography writes, “he later characterized his discovery as an unconscious, “automatic” darkroom happening that occurred in his tiny bathroom/darkroom when he placed a small glass funnel, the graduate and the thermometer in the tray on the wetted paper and turned on the light.” Man Ray had created a “photogram” of sorts previous to this when he placed objects on canvas and painted around them. While working with the photogram Man Ray began to move the objects during the exposure to give the image more depth and tonal range. In An American Century of Photography: From Dry Plate to Digital, Keith Davis writes, “their commitment to this process allowed both Man Ray and Moholoy-Nagy to produce images of remarkable originality. As works of art, these cameraless pictures profoundly transform visual experience and contradict our understanding of the codes of representation. Because they are negative images, these prints present a strange inversion of visible reality: light produces darkness, and shadows register as white. The process is at once entirely objective and bafflingly abstract.” He also discovered solarization, and worked with montage, collage, multiple exposures and mirror effects. One admirer referred to Man Ray as the poet of the darkroom.
Man Ray was heavily involved in many aspects of art. In July 1923, Man Ray released one of his films Retour a la raison at the Theatre Michel. A year later he acted in a film entitled Entr’acte, which was directed by Picabia and Rene Clair. He shot his last film in 1937 with Pablo Picasso.
One of his most famous photographs was taken in 1924, Le Violon d’Ingres and is regarded as an excellent example of surrealist art. “Le Violon d’Ingres illustrates an ancient vision of the cellist who holds his anthropomorphic instrument like a woman between his legs. The simple copying of the sound-box apertures on to the back, the framing of the form by the draped fabric below and the turban above, allows the cellist’s dream to become a reality: the surreal transformation is complete” (from Szarkowski’s “Looking at Photographs”).
By 1919, Man Ray had divorced Adon Lacroix. Ten years later he met Lee Miller who became his assistant and eventually his lover. Though best known for his contributions to photographic abstraction, he was also an accomplished portrait and fashion photographer. His commercial work was published in Vogue, Harper’s Bazaar, and Vanity Fair. Among his portrait subjects were famous artists and writers including Picasso, Salvador Dali, and James Joyce. Artistic works were published in the likes of La Revolution surrealiste, The Little Review, Vu and L’Art vivant. Throughout Man Ray’s life he was exhibited around the world. In the chronology of his life there doesn’t seem to be one year that was uneventful for this artist. His work was also published in magazines and books from around the world. Man Ray was also an author of countless articles, including his most famous “Photography is not Art.” The title is a little misleading. Man Ray discusses the reasons why photography is not considered an art. In addition, he writes about the fear painters have that photography will someday be the only art. Similar to Alfred Stieglitz, Man Ray spent most of his life trying to give photography its place in the art world. This article was followed by another entitled, “Photography Can Be Art.” In this one he writes, “some of the most complete and satisfying works of art have been produced when their authors had no idea they were creating a work of art, but were concerned with the expression of an idea.”
In 1946, Man Ray gave a lecture on Surrealism and stated, “the only preparation I made for this was to construct an object that would demonstrate a Surrealist act.” At the conclusion of the lecture the object was auctioned and given to the winner. Also in 1946, after his failed relationship with Lee Miller, he had a double wedding in Beverly Hills and married Juliet Browner with Max Ernst and Dorothea Tanning. He received a gold medal from the Venice Foto Biennale in 1961 and is represented in photography collections at the George Eastman House, the Art Institute of Chicago and the International Museum of Photographer. Also in 1961 Man Ray published autobiography entitled Self Portrait. On his 85th birthday there was an exhibition in New York celebrating his life and work. It was entitled Man Ray, Inventor, Painter, Poet. Held at the Cultural Center, organized by Roland Penrose and Mario Amaya, the exhibition featured 224 works by Man Ray. Also in 1974, Andy Warhol devoted a series of paintings to Man Ray. He died in 1976 in Paris. Man Ray is credited with playing a major role in elevating photography into the realm of abstraction and the expressionists movements of his time, and his work continues to impact artists today.
Man Ray wrote in his essay, “Photography Can Be Art,” “a book was once published of twenty photographs by twenty photographers, of the same model. They were as different as twenty paintings of the same model. There was proof, once and for all, of the flexibility of the camera and its validity as an instrument of expression.