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Man Ray

American Photographer, Sculptor, Painter, and Filmmaker

Movements and Styles: Cubism, Dada, Surrealism, Dada and Surrealist Photography, Surrealist Sculpture

Born: August 27, 1890 - Philadelphia, Pennsylvania

Died: November 18, 1976 - Paris, France

Man Ray Timeline

"Nature does not create works of art. It is we, and the faculty of interpretation peculiar to the human mind, that see art."

Man Ray Signature

Summary of Man Ray

Man Ray's career is distinctive above all for the success he achieved in both the United States and Europe. First maturing in the center of American modernism in the 1910s, he made Paris his home in the 1920s and 1930s, and in the 1940s he crossed the Atlantic once again, spending periods in New York and Hollywood. His art spanned painting, sculpture, film, prints and poetry, and in his long career he worked in styles influenced by Cubism, Futurism, Dada and Surrealism. He also successfully navigated the worlds of commercial and fine art, and came to be a sought-after fashion photographer. He is perhaps most remembered for his photographs of the inter-war years, in particular the camera-less pictures he called 'Rayographs', but he always regarded himself first and foremost as a painter.

Key Ideas

Although he matured as an abstract painter, Man Ray eventually disregarded the traditional superiority painting held over photography and happily moved between different forms. Dada and Surrealism were important in encouraging this attitude; they also persuaded him that the idea motivating a work of art was more important than the work of art itself.
For Man Ray, photography often operated in the gap between art and life. It was a means of documenting sculptures that never had an independent life outside the photograph, and it was a means of capturing the activities of his avant-garde friends. His work as a commercial photographer encouraged him to create fine, carefully composed prints, but he would never aspire to be a fine art photographer in the manner of his early inspiration, Alfred Stieglitz.
André Breton once described Man Ray as a 'pre-Surrealist', something which accurately describes the artist's natural affinity for the style. Even before the movement had coalesced, in the mid 1920s, his work, influenced by Marcel Duchamp, had Surrealist undertones, and he would continue to draw on the movement's ideas throughout his life. His work has ultimately been very important in popularizing Surrealism.
Man Ray in Paris (1934)
Man Ray in Paris (1934)

Keeping his upbringing and past a mystery, Man Ray thought of himself as a modern day "Thoreau breaking free of all ties and duties to society," an approach he expanded into the avant-garde art world, presenting himself as an "enigma," with an eye toward creating provocative art.

Important Art by Man Ray Important Art and Analysis

The below artworks are the most important by Man Ray - that both overview the major creative periods, and highlight the greatest achievements by the artist.

L'Enigme d'Isidore Ducasse (The Enigma of Isidore Ducasse) (1920)
Artwork Images Google images

L'Enigme d'Isidore Ducasse (The Enigma of Isidore Ducasse) (1920)

Artwork description & Analysis: This early, assisted readymade (a found object slightly altered) was created a year before Man Ray left for France. Marcel Duchamp's influence and assistance are evident in this Dada object, in which a sewing machine is wrapped in an army blanket, and tied with a string. The title comes from French poet Isidore Ducasse (1846-70) and the imagery comes from a quote in his book Les Chants de Maldoror (1869): 'Beautiful as the chance meeting, on a dissecting table, of a sewing machine and an umbrella'. Chance effects were important to the Dada artists, and the piece is very much in that spirit, but it also prefigures the Surrealists' interest in revealing the creative power of the unconscious. The original object was created and then dismantled after the photograph was taken. Ray did not reveal the 'enigma' under the felt and intended the photograph as a riddle for the viewers to solve with the title providing a hint.

Object wrapped in felt and string - National Gallery of Australia, Parkes (reconstructed in 1971)

Le Cadeau (The Gift) (1921)
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Le Cadeau (The Gift) (1921)

Artwork description & Analysis: This piece was made in the afternoon on the opening day of Man Ray's first solo show in Paris. It was intended as a gift to the gallery owner, the poet Philippe Soupault, and Ray added it to the show at the last minute. But the object received much attention and disappeared at the end of the opening.

Another assisted readymade, Ray took a simple utilitarian object, an iron, and made it evoke different qualities by attaching the tacks. Hence the tacks, which cling and hold, contrast with the iron, which is meant to smoothly glide, and both are rendered useless.

Iron and tacks - The Museum of Modern Art, New York (replica of the lost original)

Rayography (The Kiss) (1922)
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Rayography (The Kiss) (1922)

Artwork description & Analysis: This is one of Man Ray's earliest Rayograms, a process by which objects are laid directly on to a photo-sensitive paper then exposed to light. To create this particular picture, he transferred the silhouette of a pair of hands to the photographic paper then repeated the procedure with a pair of heads (his and his then lover's, Kiki de Montparnasse).

Rayograms gave Man Ray an opportunity to be in direct contact with his work and react to his creations immediately by adding one layer upon the next layer. He used inanimate objects as well as his own body to create his earlier pictures, and the pictures sometimes have an autobiographical quality, with many of his photographs portraying his lovers.

Gelatin silver print (photogram) - The Museum of Modern Art, New York

More Man Ray Artwork and Analysis:

Objet à détruire (Object to be Destroyed) (1923) Le Violon d'Ingres (The Violin of Ingres) (1924) Noire et Blanche (Black and White) (1926) Les Larmes (Glass Tears) (1932) l'Heure de l'Observatoire: les Amoureux</i> (Observatory Time: The Lovers) (1936)

Influences and Connections

Influences on Artist
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Man Ray
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Cite this page

Content compiled and written by Jin Jung

Edited and published by The Art Story Contributors

" Artist Overview and Analysis". [Internet]. . TheArtStory.org
Content compiled and written by Jin Jung
Edited and published by The Art Story Contributors
Available from:
First published on 21 Jan 2012. Updated and modified regularly. Information
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