Before Digital: Man Ray

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Man Ray. Self-Portrait with Camera, 1932.


Amongst the burgeoning creativity in Paris of the nineteen-twenties, the artist Man Ray, born Emmanuel Radnitzky, expanded the horizons of photography well beyond its representational means, and through relentless darkroom experimentation, liberated that medium from its place as a mirror to nature. His chosen name would come to reflect that mysterious and intrepid realm his photographs occupy in Modern Art. If the famed British inventor Henry Fox Talbot was to first name photography as ‘The Pencil of Nature’, then it would be Man Ray who would pry that pencil from the hands of nature and place it within the mind’s decree.

Like a mad scientist, Man Ray conducted a multitude of chemical and optical experiments in his darkroom, exploiting the elasticity of light and its unrealized affects on light-sensitive paper. “I deliberately dodged all the rules,” he once described his method. “I mixed the most insane products together, I used film way past its use – by date, I committed heinous crimes against chemistry and photography, and you can’t see any of it”.

In many ways, his artistic practice echoes the manipulative capabilities of today’s digital imaging. Today’s lone pixel, in its ease of manipulation, is akin to a single grain of film or even a photon of light emanating from Man Ray’s darkroom enlarger. Here, photography made a gigantic stride away from the indexical document, moving towards the artistic possibilities of digital processing.


Man Ray. Gun with Alphabet Stencils, 1924.


Man Ray’s manipulated images are widely considered the origins of Surrealism in photography, existing in an obscure realm between reality and the subconscious. The twelve “Rayographs” that comprise the 1922 series, Champs Délicieux are no less photographic than, say, a family snapshot—as they fulfill that vital photographic condition of an exposure to light. But in placing a variety of translucent and opaque objects directly on the paper during exposure, Man Ray was able to bend and mold that light into abstraction. Left behind was a shadowy imprint of the object’s form, completely dissociated from its original context, leaving our own memories to fill the gaps.


Man Ray. Untitled Rayograph: From the Portfolio “Les Champs Délicieux“, 1922.


“Rayography” found itself in a unique position amongst Man Ray’s photographic contemporaries, as his camera-less process stood in direct opposition to the influence of “Straight Photography” in the early 20th century—a Modernist trend in favor of zero-manipulation in photography; believing that such edits would disturb the artistic integrity of the medium. Likewise, Man Ray is not associated with such titles as “Pictorialism,” whose associated artists opposed the totality of Straight Photography and instead mimicked the aesthetics of painting. The Rayograph avoided the soft-focus of Impressionist painters that the Pictorialists would capitalize on, while the ridged canons of Straight Photography would prove entirely too restrictive for what Man Ray expected out of the medium.


Man Ray. Untitled Rayograph: From the Portfolio “Les Champs Délicieux”, 1922.


Man Ray’s “Solarizations” shamelessly broke what may have been the golden rule of darkroom photography—Do not turn on the light while in the darkroom. During the developing process, Man Ray would momentarily flicker his studio lights, forming that distinctive inverse of tones around in his subjects. The reclining model in Primat de la Matiere sur la pensee, 1932, for instance, is enveloped in that dream-like aura common to solarized photographs.


Man Ray. Primat de la matière sur la pensée, 1929.


Man Ray never rejected the more representational aspects of photography either, choosing to produce un-doctored images in complete contrast to his own Rayographs and Solarizations. In the image, Rrose Sélavy, 1922, the likeness and portrait of the artist Rrose Sélavy is preserved as a photographic record. Of course, like “R. Mutt” before her, “Rrose Sélavy” never existed and is instead attributed to the conceptual art-practice of Marcel Duchamp. Here, Man Ray played an eternal joke on art history by capitalizing on photography’s authority to declare existence. Their 1920 collaboration on, Dust Breeding, is captioned with such a testament: “Behold the domain of Rrose Sélavy/How arid it is/How fertile it is-/How joyous it is/How sad it is.” —But most importantly, it is.


Man Ray,with art direction by Marcel Duchamp. Rrose Sélavy, 1921.



Man Ray, in collaboration with Marcel Duchamp. Dust Breeding, 1920.


Perhaps Man Ray’s interest in experimentation was derived from his formal training as a painter, which he always asserted as his true passion. At age 31, Man Ray would follow Marcel Duchamp to Paris during the summer of 1921, where he was first introduced to the French Dada and Surrealist circles. Amongst this prolific landscape of creativity and conversation, the artist would arrive at an understanding of art that holds resonance for many of today’s image-makers: that the expression of an idea is of highest importance in art, and the tools and techniques available are only means to an end.


Man Ray. Untitled Rayograph: From the Portfolio “Les Champs Délicieux“, 1922.


Works Cited:
-Ray, Man, Emmanuelle De. L’Ecotais, Katherine Ware, André Breton, and Manfred Heiting. Man Ray 1890-1976. Taschen, 2000. Print.
-Heyman, Therese Thau., Mary Street Alinder, and Naomi Rosenblum. Seeing Straight: The F.64 Revolution in Photography. Oakland, CA: Oakland Museum, 1992. Print.
-Guadagnini, Walter, and Gerry Badger. Photography: A New Vision of the World, 1891-1940. Milano: Skira, 2011. Print.
(All images) copyrighted J. Paul Getty Trust at


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Text by Gabriel H. Sanchez