Man Ray was French-American artist, phototgrapher and film director, whose art had a great influence on most avant-garde movements of the 20th cent. – from Dadaism to Surrealism, from abstract to commercial photography.
Emmanuel Radnitzky was born on August 27. 1890 in Philadelphia, where his family had immigrated from Kovenskaya province of Russian Empire. In seven years his family moved to Brooklyn in New York. Because of anti-Semitic attacks, they were forced to change their surname into Ray.
When the young man was 22-years-old, he changed his name into Man, that derived from his true one – Emmanuel, Manny. Very soon Man Ray became a name to know.
Man Ray demonstrated interest in painting from early on, so, in 1908, after finishing school, he decided to become an artist. He trained in drawing under the guidance of Robert Henri and George Bellows at the Francisco Ferrer Social Center, and moved to the art colony of Ridgefield in New Jersey after finishing it.
The young painter, searching for his unique creative identity, tried various movements and trends, ‑ Cubism, Futurism, Abstract art and others. His early works were already noticeable by their subject and manner, as he was pioneer in using paint-sprayer – so-called aerograph – in his pieces (“Ropedancer Accompanies herself with her Shadows”, 1916). All the author’s activity was submitted to vanguard spirit of the epoch. In 1915 he met Marcel Duchamp, one of Dadaist’s leaders, who inspired him immersing to the philosophy of the movement. Hence Man Ray published New York Dada magazine, established “Société Anonyme” – American association that supported promotion of modern art.
Emmanuel was much influenced by Alfred Stieglitz, who was one of the most significant personalities in the art world, photographer and gallery-owner. It was him, who animated Man Ray with photography. Initially, the young master was attracted by potential of photocollage, which allowed combining reality and imagination. He bought his first photocamera to capture his own works – paintings, sculptures. Then he started making photos of his friends and fellows, and took orders from everyone, who needed, to earn for living.
In 1921 Man Ray left for Paris, where he began working as a portrait-photographer. His popularity gradually increased and in a couple of year he became one of the most demanded and highly-paid photographers in Paris. Having a shot by Man Ray was prestigious.
At that time the master fell in love with Alice Prin, more known Kiki de Montparnasse. In 1924 he published her surrealistic collage image, known as “Ingres’ Violin”. It was a sort of photographic “pun”. “Violin d’Ingres” was a French idiom that meant someone’s favorite subject, “hobbyhorse”, as they say. It derived from the name of painter Jean August Dominique Ingres, who played violin well. Since that time they call this way every artistic hobby.
Not all his works were surrealistic, as Man Ray took many pictures of female nude – usual models posed him, as well as famous Parisian Socialites and ladies of demimonde. Once he confessed: “Speaking of nudes, I have always had a great fondness for this subject, both in my paintings and in my photos, and I must admit, not for purely artistic reasons”.
In 1929 he met Lee Miller, who became his lover and partner. They lived together for three years. At first, Lee Miller just developed and printed photos, then she assisted Many Ray in his studio and, probably, took some photos, so it might be that some of pieces of the early 1930s, attributed to Man Ray, could belong to his student’s authorship. In 1932 she left for New York, making him suffer so much, that Emmanuel even threatened committing suicide. Luckily, he soon backed to norm.
Man Ray always experimented with new technological nuances. In 1922 he rediscovered method of creating photographs without photo camera. It was a pure accident: one night the artist had developed the exposed plates and decided to print them the next evening. Among the negatives, there was a clear, unexposed one. The photographer wrote later, that “as I waited in vain a couple of minutes for an image to appear, regretting the waste of paper, I mechanically placed a small glass funnel, the graduate and the thermometer in the tray on the wetted paper, I turned on the light; before my eyes an image began to form, not quite a simple silhouette of the objects as in a straight photograph, but distorted and refracted by the glass more or less in contact with the paper and standing out against a black background, the part directly exposed to the light”. He called this method “rayographs”. “Les Champs délicieux” was a series of rayogrphs published in 1922, with an introduction by Tristan Tzara – renown poet and theoretician of Dadaism.
Man Ray also gave second life to a forgotten method – solarization – effect achieved after repeated exposition of negative. The master used it to transform pictures of common objects into fantastic and mysterious images.
In 1930s Man Ray started actively working on fashion magazines – Harper’s Bazaar, Vogue, Vu and Vanity Fair. He was invited to Harper’s Bazaar by its legendary art-director Alexey Brodovitch, who had cardinally changed the look of Bazaar and the whole American fashion industry publications in general. Brodovitch engaged the most prominent vanguard artists (many of whom were Man Ray’s friends) in transformation of the magazine – Salvador Dali, Marc Chagall, Raoul Dufy, Juan Miro, Jean Cocteau and other. He took portraits of famous and important personalities, like Louis Aragon, James Joyce, Gertrude Stein, Igor Stravinsky, Le Corbusier, Sergey Eisenstein, Coco Chanel.
Man Ray didn’t took photography seriously – being initially a way of earning money, it later became a kind of distraction, switching attention from painting or sculpture. As Emmanuel himself used to say, he took photos of things that were uninteresting to draw. But now he’s known first of all for his captivating shots. Transmitting his artistic vision on film, Man Ray revealed another, symbolical and aesthetical side of photography, filling it with mysteries, associations and demitints.
In 1951 Man Ray gave up taking photos and returned to painting, dedicating himself exclusively to it. Many people deplored that, but he replied “No, I haven’t given up photography: I have been a photographer for 35 years and a painter for 35 years. I’m a man who leads a double life. Some people say it’s cheating, but I say today’s lies are tomorrow’s truths”.
Man Ray died in Paris, in his own studio on November 18, 1976. He was interred in the Cimetière du Montparnasse. The epitaph on his gravestone reads “unconcerned, but not indifferent”.