Emmanuel Radnitzky (August 27, 1890 – November 18, 1976) was born in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania to Russian immigrant parents. In 1897 the family moved to Brooklyn, New York and in early 1912 they changed their surname to Ray in reaction to a prevaling ethnic and religious discrimination; Emmanuel, who had been nicknamed “Manny” as a child, changed his first name to Man at the same time.
Man Ray’s father was a garment factory worker and ran a small tailoring business on the side which involved everyone in the family at some level. Despite his later attempts to disassociate himself from his family background, this left an enduring mark on his art and various props such as tailor’s dummies, flat irons, sewing machines and other items relating to this period appear at practically every stage of his work.
His early education at Boys’ High School provided him with a foundation in drafting and other basic art techniques: at the same time he was a frequent visitor to local art museums where he studied the Old Masters. After graduation from high school he was offered a scholarship to study architecture but chose to pursue a career as an artist instead.
Above Left: Object Intended to be Destroyed, 1923 Right: Gift, 1921
As a young man he was also 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 he met the French artist Marcel Duchamp, and he soon abandoned conventional painting to immerse himself in the radical Dada “anti-art” movement. Following Duchamp’s lead he began making “objects”, and developed unique mechanical and photographic methods of making images.
In 1920 Ray helped Duchamp create one of the earliest examples of kinetic art, Rotary Glass Plates composed of glass plates turned by a motor. That same year he founded the Société Anonyme along with Duchamp and Katherine Dreier, an itinerant collection which in effect was the first museum of modern art in the U.S., and worked with Duchamp on New York Dada in 1920.
Yet Man Ray felt that the experimentation of the Dada movement was lost in the chaotic society of New York, writing “Dada cannot live in New York. All New York is dada, and will not tolerate a rival.”
In 1921 Man Ray moved to Paris and quickly associated with the Parisian Dada and Surrealist circles of artists and writers. He settled in the Montparnasse quarter, met and fell in love with Kiki de Montparnasse (Alice Prin), an artists’ model and celebrated character in Paris bohemian circles who became the subject of some of his most famous photographic images. In 1929 he began a love affair with the Surrealist photographer Elizabeth “Lee” Miller. Inspired by the liberation promoted by these groups, he experimented with many media but particularly with photography: he began to produce photograms by placing objects directly on light-sensitive paper, which he called rayographs and 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. In 1929 Man Ray also began experimenting with 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 was one of the first artists to use the process for aesthetic purposes.
Man Ray directed a number of influential avant-garde short films such as Le Retour à la Raison (2 mins, 1923); Emak-Bakia (16 mins, 1926); L’Étoile de Mer (15 mins, 1928); and Les Mystères du Château de Dé (20 mins, 1929). He also assisted Marcel Duchamp with the cinematography of his film Anemic Cinema (1926), and personally manned the camera on Fernand Léger’s Ballet Mécanique (1924). Man Ray also appeared in René Clair’s film Entr’acte (1924), in a brief scene playing chess with Duchamp.
During this time he also pursued fashion and portrait photography, and created 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. He also continued to produce ready-mades: one, a metronome with a photograph of an eye fixed to the pendulum, was called Object to Be Destroyed (1923)- which it was by anti-Dada rioters in 1957.
When the Brussels-based art magazine Varits was unable to pay a printers’ bill in 1929 it was suggested that they publish an erotic edition to raise working capital; Louis Aragon approached Man Ray for some photographs to include in the volume, and was presented with a sheaf of closely cropped pornographic prints featuring a couple widely assumed to be Kiki Montparnesse and Man Ray himself. The edition was entitled simply 1929, and some 500 copies featuring four of the photos were printed. Most of them were promptly seized by French Customs, but the few copies that got through were soon on sale clandestinely in Paris at greatly inflated prices. (1929, by Benjamin Pret, Aragon and Man Ray is currently published by Alyscamps Press, Paris & London, ISBN 1897722 885).
In 1963 he published his autobiography, Self-Portrait, which was republished in 1999.
In an interview with Jacqueline Goddard some years later she described how she walked with him around Montparnasse cemetery on a rainy night not long after Lee Miller left him, listening to his threats of murder and suicide as a pistol clinked in his raincoat pocket; she saw Kiki begging in the Montparnasse cafes where she once reigned as queen, supposedly to pay the gas and light bills but actually to buy cocaine; she visited him in his last home, on rue Ferou, and watched as, unnoticed by the invalid Ray or his near-blind wife Juliet, the dealers and admirers slipped his more portable prints and objets under their fashionably flowing overcoats.
In 1940 Man Ray escaped the German occupation of Paris by moving to Los Angeles. A few days after arriving in California he met dancer and model Juliet Browner; they began living together almost immediately, and were married in 1946 in a double wedding along with their friends Max Ernst and Dorothea Tanning. But he always considered Montparnasse his home and he returned in 1951.
Man Ray died in Paris on November 18, 1976 of a lung infection, and was interred in the Cimetière du Montparnasse, Paris. His epitaph reads: unconcerned, but not indifferent. When Juliet Browner died in 1991, she was interred in the same tomb. Her epitaph reads, together again.
At a time when photography in the United States and Europe was focused on skilled technique, Man Ray took the medium into the sphere of true surrealism: utilizing his techniques of solarization and photograms to go beyond the constraints of merely recording scenes and effectively creating a new form of imagery.