Born to a Russian-Jewish immigrant family in Philadelphia in 1890, Man Ray was a prominent member of the French Surrealist circle, and is celebrated for pioneering Modernist painting, film and photography.
At the age of 25, Ray took up photography, and co-founded the Societé Anonyme when he was 31—which was regarded as the first important collection of Modern Art in the United States. Around the same time he shifted to Paris, becoming an active member of the French Surrealist group until the beginning of World War II.
Apart from his artistic and photography accolades, Ray is known for his experimental photography innovations, creating ‘camera-less’ photographic works labelled ‘Rayographs’ by placing objects on light-sensitive paper. He explored this technique for more than 40 years, in the process creating many of his most important works including two portfolio books, Champs delicieux and Electricite. Using solarization and other photographic techniques involving the manipulation of light and the camera’s mechanical processes, Ray pushed the horizons of avant-garde photography.
Ray was a multifaceted personality: painter, object artist, and a filmmaker. He was among the very few artists whose images were more valuable to collectors than his artistic work; thereby making an immense contribution to the evaluation of photography as a form of art.
While in the initial phases Ray was inspired by cubism and expressionism, new influences in his life changed his focus to Dadaism, which advocated spontaneity. When he was in his 30s, Ray who was exposed to the writings of psychologist Sigmund Freud and the literary, intellectual, and artistic movement called Surrealism which aspired for a revolution against the constraints of the rational mind and rules of society. Among Americans, Ray was the only member of the Paris surrealist movement; and his popular artistic work at that time was The Gift, the sculpture which had two found objects.
He then went on to develop a career as a fashion photographer, capturing images for popular magazines in Paris. Among Ray’s most influential works are Indestructible Object (Object to Be Destroyed), Noire et Blanche (Black and White), Glass Tears, and most of his Rayographs, as well as his fashion photography for Vogue and Vanity Fair.
Another noted work when he was in his 30s was Ingres's Violin in 1924. This photograph, which was styled after a famous painting, featured the naked back of Ray’s muse, wherein he drew two black shapes on her back to make it appear like musical instruments.
When Ray was 50 he had to flee from France, shifting base to Los Angeles where he lived for 11 years as a very successful photographer in New York and Hollywood. At 54, Ray had his first retrospective at the Pasadena Art Institute, showcasing his paintings, drawings, watercolors and photographs from his 30-year portfolio as an artist.
Man Ray also pursued fashion and portrait photography and made 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
At the age of 61, he returned to France focussing on his paintings. He published his autobiography, Self-Portrait at the age of 73.
Ray’s films were also highly acclaimed in certain circles. In one short film, Le Retour à la raison (Return to Reason), he applied the rayograph technique to motion-picture film, making patterns with salt, pepper, tacks, and pins. His other films include Anémic cinéma and L’Étoile de mer (Star of the Sea), regarded as a Surrealist classic.
Ray’s works find pride of place the Art Institute of Chicago, the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden in Washington, DC, the Getty Museum in Los Angeles, the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, the Musée d’Orsay in Paris, the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam, and the Tate Gallery in London, among others.
Till his death at the age of 86 in 1976 Ray continued working on new paintings, photographs, collages and art objects. As a renowned representative of avant-garde photography in the 20th century and pioneer of Surrealist photography, it may be apt to quote Man Ray, ‘I like contradictions. We have never attained the infinite variety and contradictions that exist in nature. Tomorrow I shall contradict myself. That is the one way I have of asserting my liberty, the real liberty one does not find as a member of society.’
Siddharth Kumar is the Co-Founder & Lead Photographer SIDART Photography, a professional photography venture focusing on weddings, portraiture and commercial photography. After an 8-year stint in an MNC, he decided to pursue his passion for photography and music. In 2019, he was awarded Certificate of Honorable Mention by International Photography Awards (IPA), Los Angeles. In 2014, he won the First Prize at the International Photography Competition organized by Mindshare Worldwide. He holds a Grade 8 Certificate in Piano Performance from Trinity College London.