In the early decades of the 20th century, photography was still seen as a process able to reproduce unambiguous truth with machine-like objectivity. The American photographer, Dadaist, Surrealist and luminary of the Parisian avant-garde, Man Ray, challenged this assumption. Rather than treating it as a passive recording process, Ray used photography as a means of fathoming human desire, dreams and the unconscious. By doing so, he created some of the most beautiful and enigmatic images of the first half of the 20th century and forever changed the way images are made and looked at.
Born, Emmanuel Radnitzky in Philadelphia, Man Ray was the eldest child of Russian-Jewish immigrants who changed their surname to ‘Ray’. After the family moved to Brooklyn, Ray studied drawing under the celebrated realist artist, George Bellows, in New York. His visits to Alfred Stieglitz’s gallery, 291, and the seminal Post-Impressionist and Cubist Armory Show of 1913, greatly influenced Ray, and by 1916 he was making masterful Cubist works of his own. Throughout his career, Ray would continue to paint and experiment in filmmaking and sculpture. But it was his meeting with French Dadaist Marcel Duchamp in 1915, and his subsequent work in photography beginning in the early 1920s, that would have the greatest impact on the history of art.
Ray followed Duchamp to Paris in 1921 to be at the centre of the European avant-garde. There he began experimenting with the processes of solarisation and a version of the photogram he called the ‘rayograph’. He would live in Paris for the next 20 years in a circle including Gertrude Stein, Jean Cocteau, Dalí, Max Ernst, André Breton, and Lee Miller, producing iconic surrealist images such as Le Violon d’Ingres (1924), Noire et Blanche (1926) and Les Larmes (1932).
The portraits he took of his friends in the Parisian avant-garde and his celebrated fashion shoots for the likes of Harper’s Bazaar and Vogue saw many of his techniques enter the common vernacular of photography. Ray left Paris at the beginning of the World War II and returned only in 1951, where he lived until his death.
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