Man Ray was born Emmanuel Radnitsky (or Radnitzky) in 1890 in Philadelphia, but his family later moved to Brooklyn and shortened their name to Ray. Not wishing to be pigeonholed by his ethnic background, the young Ray abbreviated Emmanuel (or 'Manny') to Man - which could hardly be more universal. Visits to shows at Stieglitz's 291 Gallery and elsewhere introduced Man Ray to modern art and he attended various classes around New York while making a living as a graphic artist.
In New York, Ray met and worked with the French artist Marcel Duchamp and Francis Picabia from Spain, forming the core of the New York Dada movement whose centre was Alfred Stieglitz's gallery '291'. Ray largely abandoned the use of brushes in his paintings, preferring the machine-like quality of the airbrush, used with cut stencils. He also took up photography, at first to produce prints of his own work. Among his early photographs are two pictures forming a diptych, Man and Woman; an egg whisk with its shadow, and a lamp holder with wooden clothespins on a sheet of glass, again coalescing with its shadow into a greater whole. Together with his cliché verres from the same period (prints made from a 'negative' formed by engraving a line on a blackened sheet of glass) announce his conception of photography as a tool for working with light.
In 1921, Man Ray left for Paris, where he lived and worked for most of the rest of his life (apart from spending the war and a few years after in Hollywood) and was buried. Here he was at the centre of theSurrealist Movement which developed from Dada, taking part in it and also photographing his fellow artists. His portrait and fashion photography was also a commercial success.
Much of his best known work from the early 1920's used the cameraless technique of the photogram (or Rayogram as he styled it), in which objects where placed on photographic paper which was then exposed to light, often several short exposures with changes in the positions of the objects. (Making photograms will be the subject of a later feature.) Ray's work with this often used identifiable objects; one series using wires, electric irons and related items actually being made for a series of advertisements for the French Electricity company. In this it tends to contrast with the work from the same period by Moholy-Nagy, where the interest is largely in the interaction of light with the objects and the aesthetic effects this produces.
One of the best known of these works (unfortunately not apparently available on the web) from around 1925 uses a toy gyroscope roughly in the centre of the darkened paper, the taut cotton on which it is apparently balancing running from a holder at the bottom left corner to the right of the frame. Close to the right edge and almost parallel to it is the image from a strip of 35mm movie negative, showing a silhouetted head (perhaps Man Ray himself?) against a light window. Obviously this is a piece about time and movement, but also encapsulating a dual paradox: the gyroscope which remains stationary by virtue of its rapid movement, and the movie which produces the impression of motion from the projection of still images. The print has also taken a piece of waste - the scrap film end with its process number pin-holed in it - and recycled it to art. (Ray used the gyroscope again in other photograms.) A similar contradiction is created in the most famous of his constructions, Le Cadeau (The Gift), a flat clothes iron studded with nails. Ray the photographer was less forced, more allusive, more subtle and more profound than Ray the maker or painter.
Ray's photograms are often based in some way upon the human form, representing a torso, or, more often, a face. Others, like many of his photographs, move away from visual resemblance and into the realm of puns and allusions, largely literary - Surrealism was in essence a literary phenomenon. With much of his work the reader is confronted with an object to be unravelled as well as possibly to be enjoyed. In one work the unravelling almost becomes literal, as his Enigma of Isadore Ducasse, 1920 depicts a lumpy object wrapped in sacking and tied round with rope in front of a plain background. Ducasse (1846-79) came to Paris to complete his education and died three years later having abandoned himself to a fantasy world of visions and nightmares populated by angels, lunatics and the depraved, which he recorded in his Chants de Maldoror, written under the pen-name of Le Comte de Lautréamont. The savage and striking imagery of this work led to its becoming a cult among bohemian artists and the Surrealists in particular. One passage in particular that caught the Surrealist mood for bringing together unrelated objects was his description 'Beautiful ... like the chance encounter on an operating table between a sewing machine and an umbrella.' When I came across the scene below in a industrial area of London, I couldn't resist photographing it, although I'm not sure anyone has ever appreciated my title.