Who was Man Ray? Discover this avant-garde photographer

The early 20th century was an exciting time for avant-garde art. After Impressionism, more and more movements began to flourish, led by innovative artists with original ideas about aesthetics. Two of the most iconic movements to emerge during the 1900s were hobby and Surrealism. The former saw itself as “anti-art” based on chance, while the latter tried to convey unrealistic subject matter in a realistic style. One of the most important artists who link these two periods is rayman.

The American-born artist started as a painter but quickly abandoned traditional art when he discovered Dadaism. This was a starting point for Ray, who immersed himself in avant-garde art and moved to Paris to join other like-minded creatives. During this time he became a pioneer in photography, creating surreal portraits and photograms. Unafraid of experimentation, his work has pushed the boundaries of mediums both old and new.

Scroll down to learn more about Man Ray and his groundbreaking photography.

Who was Man Ray?

Photograph by Man Ray

Carl Van Vechten, Man Ray in Paris, 1934 (Photo: Library of Congress via Wikimedia CommonsPublic domain)

rayman (1890-1976) was an avant-garde artist and photographer who participated in the Dada and Surrealist art movements. Originally named Emmanuel Radnitzky, the family legally changed their last name to Ray when the artist was young to avoid discrimination as Russian Jewish immigrants.

Ray showed creative talent throughout his early years and worked as a technical illustrator after high school for several years. He hoped to become a professional painter and practiced a range of styles. Then, in 1913, he befriended a pioneer of Dadaism, Marcel Duchamp. This encounter was the impetus for Ray’s interest in the avant-garde, and he soon set aside traditional painting to pursue other art forms, notably photography.

Man Ray and Dadaism

Art Man Ray

Left: Man Ray, “Lampshade,” 1920 (Photo: Auctioneers Live via Wikimedia CommonsPD-US)
Right: Man Ray, ‘The Gift’, original 1921, edited replica 1972 (Photo: Wmpearl via Wikimedia Commons, CC0 1.0))

Ray was a key member of the dadaist movement. His friendship with Duchamp cultivated new ideas about art philosophy and aesthetics. He started creating ready-made sculptures – ordinary objects that the artist modified in some way – and abstract drawings. After Ray and Duchamp published the first and only issue of New York Dada in 1920 Ray realized that Dada could not compete with New York and he moved to Paris.

Man Ray Photography

Man Ray, “The coat rack”, 1920 (Photo: Center Pompidou via Wikimedia CommonsPD-US)

Living in Montparnasse (the artists’ quarter of Paris), Ray felt inspired to take his creative practice further and began experimenting with photography. Some of his most famous works from this period were photograms, which actually do not use a camera at all, and are instead created by the artist by placing the desired objects directly onto the surface of the photographic paper and exposing it to a light source. Ray gave his name to his “rayographies” creations.

Man Ray and surrealism

Black and White by Man Ray

Man Ray, “Black and White”, 1926 (Photo: Christie’s via Wikimedia CommonsPD-US)

Ray stayed in Paris for 20 years. During this time he made a name for himself as a leading portrait photographer. Famous artists like Salvador Dalí and Pablo Picasso were captured in his portraits. In addition to these depictions, Ray experimented with fine art photography with surreal elements. The artist notably tried to combine the real with the unreal in his images, often juxtaposing real female models with objects that fascinate him and using various photographic effects.

“I photograph things that I don’t want to paint, things that already exist”, Ray noted.

Man Ray - The Violin of IngresMan Ray, “The Violin of Ingres”, 1924

In 1925, he launched one of his most emblematic works, entitled ingres violin at the first surrealist exhibition. This black and white photo depicts a nude female figure with two f-holes of a violin painted on her back. Its title and composition refer to the painting by French neoclassical painter Jean-August-Dominique Ingres titled The Bather of Valpinçonwhich features a curvaceous woman in a similar pose.

another piece, tears of glass, looks like a still from a movie with a close-up view of a woman’s eyes as orbicular tears stream down her face. Ray placed real glass beads on the model’s face to create a stunning effect.

raymanMan Ray, “Tears of Glass”, 1934

Man Ray’s Legacy

raymanMan Ray, “Sailing”, 1930

Ray’s legacy as a pioneering artist was eclipsed by fellow Dadaist and Surrealist Duchamp. Despite everything, the American left a lasting influence on avant-garde art, particularly in the field of photography. His work with photograms inspired many future artists and his many experimental portraits continue to dazzle photographers and photography enthusiasts.

raymanMan Ray, “Eva on the accordion”, 1934

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