Man Ray (1890 – 1976)

Man Ray (1890 – 1976)

Man Ray was born as Emmanuel Radnitzky in Philadelphia in 1890 and was the oldest son of Russian Jewish immigrants. The working-class family moved to Brooklyn, New York in the late 1890s, where both parents worked as tailors. Around 1935, the family changed its last name from ‘Radnitzky’ to ‘Ray’ to combat rampant anti-Semitism. 

Growing up in New York allowed Man Ray to study art at both the National Academy of Design and the Ferrer School. He visited the 1913 Armory Show, where he got to see avant-garde European art firsthand. It was at the Armory Show that he first met American photographer and gallery owner, Alfred Stieglitz. Through Stieglitz, Man Ray met the founder of the New York Dada movement, Marcel Duchamp, who remained a close friend for the rest of his life.

Man Ray began his artistic career as a painter and collage artist, showing interest in abstracted forms, flattened surfaces, and layered planes with shallow space. He quickly became known in artistic circles as “defiant of artistic convention,” and always sought to push the boundaries with his art. Man Ray soon became heavily involved with the Dada movement in New York. Dada originated in Zurich and had no common style, but Dada artists rejected artistic conventions. They wanted to shock society into a sense of self-awareness through their unorthodox techniques, performances, and photographs. With Duchamp, Man Ray founded Société Anonyme, an organization formed to advance and disseminate modern art in America. In 1921, Man Ray collaborated with Duchamp on New York Dada, one of the first official chronicles of the movement.

Man Ray moved to Paris in 1921. Soon after, the randomness of Dada was replaced by the incongruity of Surrealism. Man Ray abandoned painting soon after moving to Paris, and focused on a deliberate and innovative use of photography. In the 1920s, he invented a new photographic style and even coined his own term (the “rayograph”). In this process, Man Ray would forgo the negative, placing objects directly onto photosensitive paper to create images. He began to experiment with reverse imaging, as well as fashion photography.

In 1934, Man Ray visited the Institut Henri Poincaré with Max Ernst, a fellow Surrealist, to study its collection of three-dimensional mathematical models. He was captivated by the aesthetics of the models, interested in using them to illustrate the elements and principles of art within other media. He began photographing the models, focused on the object nature of each. His fascination with the ‘object’ stemmed from his participation in the Surrealist movement, as this group believed there was always a deeper meaning to things. 

Due to World War II, Man Ray left France for America. In the 1940s, living in Hollywood, Man Ray picked up his paintbrush again. This time, it was to manipulate, rework, and create his own interpretations of the mathematical models via paint. The outcome? The Shakespearean Equations paintings, a synthesis of Man Ray's work as photographer, Surrealist, and Dadaist. Throughout the time Man Ray photographed and painted the Shakespearean Equations, he also constructed Surrealist objects, in keeping with his mastery of multiple mediums. 

Man Ray returned to Paris in 1951 and lived there for the rest of his life. He continued to create objects, paint, and make photographs. He died in Paris in 1976 from a lung infection.