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date: 25 November 2020

Man Rayfree

(27 August 1890–18 November 1976)
  • Martin R. Kalfatovic

Man Ray

Photograph by Carl Van Vechten, 1934.

Courtesy of the Library of Congress (LC-USZ62-63265).

Man Ray (27 August 1890–18 November 1976), artist and photographer, was born Emmanuel Radnitsky in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, the son of Melach Radnitsky (later Max Ray), a tailor, and Manya “Minnie” Louria (or Lourie), both Russian-Jewish immigrants. In 1897 the family moved to Brooklyn. After high school young Emmanuel was awarded a scholarship to study architecture at New York University. Deciding to pursue a career as an artist, he attended classes at the National Academy of Design and at the Art Students League. He was temperamentally unsuited to the rigors of the academic styles favored by these institutions, however, and so enrolled in the Ferrer Center, where Robert Henri and George Bellows taught life drawing. It was around late 1911 or early 1912 that the Radnitsky family adopted the surname Ray. Man Ray, however, preferred to list his name as a single unit.

While taking classes at the Ferrer Center, Man Ray worked as a calligrapher and layout artist for a Manhattan publishing company. Frequenting Alfred Stieglitz’s Gallery 291, Man Ray was exposed to the latest in modern art, both European and American. In 1913, at age twenty-three, he moved from his parents’ home to an artists’ colony in Ridgefield, New Jersey. His work from this period, landscapes painted with a brash, bright palette, was reminiscent of the work of the fauvists. At Ridgefield Man Ray met and in 1914 married Belgian poet Adon Lacroix. Together they published a small work, Book of Divers Writings (1915), that included poems by Lacroix and drawings by Man Ray. Guided by his wife’s collection of French literature, particularly the works of Charles Pierre Baudelaire, Arthur Rimbaud, Stéphane Mallarmé, and the protodadaist Isidore Ducasse, Man Ray turned his thoughts to Paris.

Man Ray met French artist Marcel Duchamp during the latter’s visit to New York in 1915. The two quickly established a friendship that would last until Duchamp’s death in 1968. That same year Man Ray’s first exhibition was held at the Daniel Gallery in New York. The next year, 1916, Man Ray painted his first major work, The Rope Dancer Accompanies Herself with Her Shadows (Museum of Modern Art, New York City). His second exhibition at the Daniel Gallery, which opened in 1916, included a number of works—such as Self-Portrait, constructed of an electric door bell mounted on canvas—that challenged the prevailing standards of even the most avant-garde American work of the time.

In the years between 1917 and 1921 Man Ray put aside painting in favor of three-dimensional objects of a sculptural nature. In many ways these works paralleled the iconoclastic work emerging out of the literary and artistic movement known as dada—begun in Zurich in 1916 for the purpose of negating all traditionally held values regarding art and culture—though Man Ray was not introduced to dadism by Duchamp until around 1920. Man Ray had earlier taught himself the rudiments of photography, and he now began to use the process to document his objects.

Having found a kindred spirit in dada, Man Ray hoped to foster its growth in the United States. In 1921, together with Duchamp, he began to publish the magazine New York Dada; it elicited little interest, however, and ceased publication after only one issue. Despondent by the lack of response to the magazine, Man Ray left for Paris—without his wife—in the spring of 1921. (The couple eventually divorced in 1937.) Greeted enthusiastically by the artists and poets who gathered at the Café Certa, Man Ray became a fixture in the Montparnasse section of Paris, where he moved in the circle of artists and poets that included Tristan Tzara, André Breton, Philippe Soupault, and Francis Picabia. Aware of his economic and cultural dependence—his French was basic at best—he avoided the political fractiousness of the dadaists, and his nonconfrontational personality enabled him to remain friends with them as well as with Breton and his cohorts, who subsequently became the core of the surrealist movement. Man Ray’s first Paris exhibition, which opened in 1921 at the Librairie Six, consisted mostly of works he had brought from New York. A new work, Le Cadeau, consisting of a flatiron with fourteen tacks on its smooth surface, became a key icon both in Man Ray’s oeuvre and in dada, as well as an embodiment of the emerging surrealism.

In late 1921 Man Ray began to use the photographic process he called “rayography”: common objects such as combs, keys, and drinking glasses were placed directly on photosensitive paper, and lights were flashed on the objects; the developed image (called a rayograph) seemed to float somewhere beyond the plane of the paper itself. At the same time he also began to take portrait photographs of those in the Parisian art world. Among the writers and artists who sat for him in his first years were James Joyce, Gertrude Stein, Henri Matisse, and Marcel Proust. As Man Ray’s fame as a portraitist spread in the 1920s, his studio in Paris became a mandatory stop for travelers from America and other parts of Europe. Fashion photography assignments from the most important Parisian designers also became a staple of his work. Man Ray created a romantic style of fashion photography that sacrificed mundane realism in favor of surprising and sometimes shocking depictions of haute couture. His photographs appeared regularly during the 1920s and early 1930s in Vanity Fair and Vogue. By 1934, when his pictures began appearing in Harper’s Bazaar, his career as a fashion photographer had reached its peak. The income from his fashion photography made Man Ray’s life noticeably more comfortable, and he was able to build a New York bank account that would see him through later, less prosperous, times.

During his first months at Montparnasse Man Ray met the already celebrated gamine Kiki de Montparnasse (born Alice Prin). The two soon moved in together, and she became a key feature of his art. Serving as his model, Kiki was the subject of his well-known photographs “Le Violon d’Ingres” (1924) and “Noire et Blanche” (1926) as well as numerous portraits. The two remained a couple for only about six years but remained lifelong friends until Kiki’s death in 1953.

In 1923 Tzara asked Man Ray to create a film for his planned dada-arts gala, and Man Ray improvised a two-minute blend of rayographs, photographs, and randomly exposed film that he ironically titled Le Retour à la Raison (The return to reason). The enigmatic film’s debut was marred by a brawl among the dadaists that led to Breton’s formal creation of the surrealist movement the following year. Cinema continued to intrigue Man Ray, and he made three more films: Emak Bakia (1926), L’Étoile de Mer (The Starfish; 1928), and Les Mystères du Château de Dés (The mysteries of the Château of Dice; 1929) before the advent of sound and the collaborative nature of film production discouraged him from further cinematic efforts.

In 1929, his relationship with Kiki having ended, Man Ray met Lee Miller, a former model for photographers Edward Steichen and Arnold Genthe. Miller became Man Ray’s darkroom assistant and receptionist as well as his lover. During the three years that he and Miller worked together, Man Ray developed his “solarization” process in which negatives in the process of being developed are flashed with a bright light, creating a sort of halo effect around the main image. At the same time, an ever-widening social circle encompassed the couple as both participants and photographers. Miller’s independent nature led her to leave Man Ray in 1932. Devastated by her departure, he threw himself into his work and created one of his best-known paintings, A l’Heure de l’Observatoire—Les Amoureux (also known as The Lips). This large painting of a pair of disembodied lips accompanied Man Ray on his travels and held a place of honor in many of his important exhibitions. Miller was also the subject of Object Meant to Be Destroyed (1932; later retitled Perpetual Motif), in which a photograph of her eye was affixed to a metronome. In later years Man Ray and Miller revived their friendship, and her husband, Roland Penrose, became an important supporter of his work.

Determined to deemphasize his work as a photographer, Man Ray worked on a number of different projects. In 1937 he published Les Mains Libres, a “surrealist travelogue” consisting of pen-and-ink drawings that, according to the title page, were “illustrated by the poems of Paul Éluard.” In 1938 Man Ray participated in the Exposition Internationale du Surréalisme, the last formal gasp of the surrealist movement before its American exile during World War II. For the event, whose theme centered on altered store mannequins, he contributed a mannequin and acted as “master of lighting.”

With the fall of France in 1940, Man Ray joined the exodus of artists to the United States. His companion of recent years, Adrienne “Ady” Fidelin, a dancer from Guadeloupe, chose to stay in France. His U.S. citizenship and New York bank account enabled him to escape to Spain, where he boarded a ship to New York with, among others, Salvador Dali. Not caring for the city of his childhood, Man Ray abandoned the group of exiled surrealists in New York and late in 1940 decamped to California. In Los Angeles he delivered a message from a New York acquaintance to Juliet Browner, a 28-year-old former artists’ model then stranded on the West Coast. The two were immediately charmed with one another and moved to a Hollywood residential hotel together.

In Los Angeles Man Ray devoted his time entirely to painting. When visitors to his studio requested photographic portraits he told them, “I am not a photographer. I am a fautegrapher, I take a fautegraph, a false line. My true line is the pencil and the brush.” Man Ray more formally repudiated the artistic nature of photography in his essay “Photography Is Not Art,” which appeared in the April–October 1943 issue of the avant-garde journal View. In addition to working on new paintings, he re-created works he had left behind in Paris that he feared had been destroyed. Man Ray’s first exhibition in the United States since leaving Paris was held at the Frank Perls Gallery in Los Angeles in 1941. His work was featured in a number of other exhibitions in southern California, but his paintings found few buyers. In 1946 he and Browner were married in a double ceremony with fellow surrealists Max Ernst and Dorothea Tanning. This would be his last relationship, and it, like the others, was childless.

Man Ray longed to return to France—“California is a beautiful prison,” he once told his sister—and he and Browner moved there, permanently in 1951. Back in his beloved Paris, Man Ray began a new phase of his career, concentrating on painting and the creation of assemblages and filling his studio with these objects, among them Miroir à Mourir de Rire (Mirror to die laughing by; 1952), Monument au Peintre Inconnu (Tomb of the unknown painter; 1953), and Ballet Français (1956). Participating in the Exposition inteRnatiOnale du Surréalisme (EROS), organized by André Breton and Marcel Duchamp in 1959, Man Ray reaffirmed his participation in the surrealist movement.

Numerous exhibitions of Man Ray’s work were held throughout the world in the 1960s. He also began to create limited editions of his assemblages as well as his early dada sculptures, such as Le Cadeau. In the later 1960s he also lifted his self-imposed ban on photography and occasionally took portraits for friends and allowed his photography from earlier years to be exhibited. The increasingly fragile artist traveled to London in 1975 to attend the opening of an exhibition of his works at the Institute for Contemporary Art organized by the institute’s founder-director and his longtime friend, Roland Penrose. Man Ray died the following year in his Paris studio.

Man Ray’s varied career as a dadaist, a portrait, fashion, and fine art photographer, a sculptor, and a filmmaker continues to defy categorization, but his contribution to photography is perhaps his most lasting achievement. The major exhibition Perpetual Motif: The Art of Man Ray, organized in 1988 by the National Museum of American Art (Smithsonian Institution), focused on all aspects of his career and examined his contributions and lasting influence on twentieth-century art.


Works by Man Ray are located in the Museum of Modern Art, New York; the Philadelphia Museum of Art; the National Museum of American Art, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C.; the Yale University Art Gallery, New Haven, Conn.; and the Centre d’Art et de Culture Georges Pompidou, Paris. The Man Ray archive, which contains papers and the contents of his studio, is located in Paris. A photographic self-portrait taken in 1924 is owned by the National Portrait Gallery in Washington, D.C. Self Portrait (1963) is his idiosyncratic, meandering, and ultimately misleading autobiography. Perpetual Motif: The Art of Man Ray (1988), the catalog from the exhibition of the same name, is a valuable source of information on Man Ray’s life and works. The major biography is Neil Baldwin, Man Ray: American Artist (1988). See also Kiki de Montparnasse’s autobiography, Souvenirs (1929). An obituary is in the New York Times, 19 Nov. 1976.