man ray

I started thinking of Man Ray recently while working on a story. I was thinking specifically of his portrait of a woman with her back towards the camera, her skin imprinted as if the body itself was an instrument. It’s one of his more famous photographs. After doing a little research, I was blown away by the brilliance and sheer immensity of his work. I hadn’t realized how deep and expansive Man Ray’s work actually was.

Man Ray was born August 27, 1890 and is recognized as one of the great Dada and Surrealist artists. Very briefly – The DADA movement focused on the absurd and The Surrealist movement focused on the unconscious, dreams, and fantasies. The PBS series “American Masters” refers to him as the “Prophet of the Avant-Garde.”

“It has never been my object to record my dreams, just the determination to realize them.” ~ Man Ray. Julien Levy exhibition catalog, April 1945

While living in New York City, with his friend Marcel Duchamp, he formed the American branch of the Dada movement, which began in Europe as a radical rejection of traditional art. He co-founded the group of modern artists called Others.

MAN RAY, n. m. synon. de Joie jouer jouir. (MAN RAY, n. MR. synon. of Joy to play to enjoy)~ Marcel Duchamp

“There is no progress in art, any more than there is progress in making love. There are simply different ways of doing it.” ~ Man Ray, 1948 essay, “To Be Continued, Unnoticed”.

“Man Ray’s drawings: always desire, not necessity. Not a wisp of down, not a cloud, but wings, teeth, claws.” (Patrick Waldberg, Surrealism, 1965, Thames & Hudson Ltd, London)

After a few unsuccessful experiments, and notably after the publication of a unique issue of New York Dada in 1920, Man Ray stated, “Dada cannot live in New York”, and in 1921 he went to live and work in the Montparnasse quarter of Paris, France.

For the next 20 years in Montparnasse, Man Ray revolutionized the art of photography. Great artists of the day such as James Joyce, Gertrude Stein, and Jean Cocteau posed for his camera.

With Jean Arp, Max Ernst, André Masson, Joan Miró, and Pablo Picasso, Man Ray was represented in the first Surrealist exhibition at the Gallerie Pierre in Paris in 1925.

Marie-Berthe, Max Ernst, Lee Miller, and Man Ray, 1931

In 1934, Surrealist artist Méret Oppenheim posed for Man Ray in what became a well-known series of photographs depicting Oppenheim nude, standing next to a printing press. In the series “The Fantasies of Mr. Seabrook”, ca 1930, Man Ray ventures into BDSM, erotica, and fetishim.

Together with Surrealist photographer Lee Miller, Man Ray invented the photographic technique of solarization. He also created a technique using photograms he called rayographs.

Man Ray also directed a number of influential avant-garde short films, such as Le Retour à la Raison (2 mins, 1923); Emak-Bakia (16 mins, 1926); L’Étoile de Mer (15 mins, 1928); and Les Mystéres du Château du Dé (20 mins, 1929).

detail from L’Étoile de Mer, 1928

Later in life, Man Ray returned to the United States, where he lived in Los Angeles, California for a few years. However, he called Montparnasse home and he returned there, where he died in November, 1976. He was interred in the Cimetière du Montparnasse, Paris. His epitaph reads: Unconcerned, but not indifferent.

Man Ray in his Paris studio, 1928

Most of the biographical information found here was compiled from Wikipedia. For more information about Man Ray, I recommend PBS’s series American Masters: “Man Ray: Prophet of the Avant-Garde“. To find out about current exhibitions of his work, check out the Man Ray Trust.


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