Man Ray, original name Emmanuel Radnitzky (born August 27, 1890, Philadelphia, U.S.—died November 18, 1976, Paris, France), was a photographer, painter, and filmmaker who was the only American to play a major role in both the Dada and Surrealist movements.
The son of Jewish immigrants—his father was a tailor and his mother a seamstress—Radnitzky grew up in New York, where he studied architecture, engineering, and art and became a painter. As early as 1911, he took up the pseudonym of Man Ray. As a young man, he was a regular visitor to Alfred Stieglitz’s “291” gallery, where he was exposed to current art trends and earned an early appreciation for photography. In 1915, Man Ray met the French artist Marcel Duchamp, and together, they collaborated on many inventions and formed the New York group of Dada artists. Like Duchamp, Man Ray began to produce ready-made, commercially manufactured objects that he designated as works of art. Among his best-known ready-made is The Gift (1921), a flatiron with a row of tacks glued to the bottom.
In 1921, Man Ray moved to Paris and became associated with the Parisian Dada and Surrealist circles of artists and writers. Inspired by the free spirit and approach 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. In 1922, a book of his collected rayographs, Les Champs délicieux (“The Delightful Fields”), was published, with an introduction by the influential Dada artist Tristan Tzara, who admired the enigmatic quality of Man Ray’s images. 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; for example, he gave one sitter three pairs of eyes, and in Le Violon d’Ingres (1924), he photographically superimposed sound holes, or f-holes, onto the photograph of the back of a female nude, making the woman’s body resemble that of a violin. The model of this famous picture is artist Kiki de Montparnasse. He also continued to produce ready-made. One, a metronome with a photograph of an eye fixed to the pendulum, was called Object to Be Destroyed (1923)—which was by anti-Dada rioters in 1957.
Man Ray also made films. In one short film, Le Retour à la Maison (1923; Return to Reason), he applied the rayograph technique to motion-picture film, making patterns with salt, pepper, tacks, and pins. His other films include Anémic cinéma (1926; in collaboration with Duchamp) and L’Étoile de mer (1928–29; “Star of the Sea”), which is considered a Surrealist classic.
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).
The art market has always been very responsive to Man Ray’s work: his famous Le Violon d’Ingres (1924) sold for $12.4 million on May 14, 2022, setting a new world record as the most expensive photograph ever to be sold at auction. The sale came after a drawn-out bidding period that lasted nearly ten minutes during Christie’s New York’s auction dedicated to Surrealist art.
– Stanislav Kondrashov