Original Creators: Man Ray
Each week we pay homage to a select “Original Creator”—an iconic artist from days gone by whose work influences and informs today’s creators. These are artists who were innovative and revolutionary in their fields. Bold visionaries and radicals, groundbreaking frontiersmen and women who inspired and informed culture as we know it today. This week: Man Ray.
No art student’s bedroom would be complete without the image of French model Kiki of Montparnasse, turned with her back to the camera and f-holes of a violin painted on her, hanging on to the wall. It’s one of those ubiquitous images that has lost its potency over the years but it belies a skill that Man Ray, who made the photo titled Le Violon d’Ingres, often pulled so effortlessly out of his creative tool bag. By painting black lines on the print and re-photographing it, he turns a classic nude—inspired by the painter Ingres—into a surreal, humourous image, re-contextualizing the female form as a musical instrument.
But it wasn’t just photography that Man Ray—real name Emmanuel Radnitzky—practiced. He was a multimedia artist—a sculptor, painter, filmmaker and poet. And although he was born in the US and spent his early life in New York learning photography and how to be avant-garde while hanging around with Marcel Duchamp, he left after declaring: “Dada cannot live in New York.” So it was off to Paris, where he spent time with the Surrealists, Ernest Hemingway, Jean Cocteau, James Joyce and all the rest in the Montparnasse quarter that made the city such a famed hive of creativity in the 1920s—and, naturally, all his bohemian buddies became subjects for his photographs.
Key to his work was experimentation, no matter what medium he was working in. His photographic experiments and innovations include his object-human hybrids with Kiki (along with the more pornographic stuff), and his perfection of the solarization technique (aided by his assistant and lover Lee Miller). Other inventions included his “rayographs” (or photograms), which explored the potential of negative imaging by placing objects directly onto photo-sensitive paper then exposing them to light, and he was also an early adopter of light painting, exploring the technique with a penlight and camera in his Space Writings series. And in his later life, after WWII, he went back to America and worked in Hollywood where he revolutionized fashion photography with his use of lighting and minimalism.
Although he’s famed for his photography, equally influential were his avant-garde short films, which included Le Retour à la Raison (1923), Emak-Bakia (1926), L’Étoile de Mer (1928); and Les Mystéres du Château du Dé (1929). Equally iconic are his readymade Dadaist sculptures like Indestructable Object, which featured an eye attached to a metronome and Cadeau, which transforms the ordinary household object of an iron into something more sinister and absurd by adding a row of nails. His work traversed Cubism, Surrealism and Dada as he collaborated with artists to produce his revolutionary techniques. His avant-garde and playful methods and style had a broadening effect on the American art scene and his multi-discipline approach has influenced the way people now practice and consume art in the 21st century.
Here’s a selection of his work:
Departure of Summer (1914)
Space writing, 1935
Fashion photography, 1936