Shortly after his arrival in Paris during the summer of 1921, Man Ray reached an artistic breakthrough with his discovery of the automatic photographic process known as the Rayograph. According to his own account, the artist had accidentally stumbled upon the technique while developing prints for the couturier Paul Poiret, unwittingly placing a handful of household objects onto an extra piece of sensitised paper in the developing tray in his make-shift darkroom. ‘I turned on the light; before my eyes an image began to form, not quite a simple silhouette of the objects as in a straight photograph, but distorted and refracted by the glass more or less in contact with the paper and standing out against a black background … I made a few more prints, excitedly, enjoying myself immensely. In the morning I examined the results, pinning a couple of the rayographs – as I decided to call them – on the wall. They looked startlingly new and mysterious’ (Man Ray, Self Portrait, London, 1988, p. 106).
While the technique was based on the same principles explored by Henry Fox Talbot almost a century previously, what distinguished Man Ray’s images from other automatic photogram processes was the manner in which the artist played with and manipulated light in their creation. Utilising objects of varying transparency to build his compositions, Man Ray typically shifted the angle and position of his light source, sometimes removing and reintroducing it in intervals, to add a dynamic sense of depth and textural richness to the finished work. Uniting both the imprint of the object and its shadow in a single image, Man Ray successfully imbued these innocuous, everyday items with a mysterious, ethereal quality, that proved revelatory to contemporary audiences.
These unique, visionary images, hovering between the abstract and representation, revealed a new way of seeing that delighted the Dada poets and artists who championed Man Ray’s work, most notably Tristan Tzara, who eloquently described them as ‘projections surprised in transparence, by the light of tenderness, of things that dream and talk in their sleep’ (Tzara, quoted in J. Fuller, ‘Atget and Man Ray in the Context of Surrealism,’ Art Journal, Vol. 36, No. 2, Winter 1976-77, p. 133). Later that year, Man Ray and Tzara collaborated to produce a deluxe portfolio showcasing twelve of these experimental Rayographs, entitled Les champs délicieux, in homage to André Breton and Philippe Soupault’s collection of automatic writings, Les champs magnétiques. Created as a unique test-print for number 11 of the 12 images in Les champs delicieux, this gelatin silver print remained in Tzara’s personal collection following the release of the publication, a testament to the close friendship and fruitful artistic partnership the two enjoyed at this time. Published privately in Paris in 1922 in a planned edition of 40, only approximately 15 sets of the portfolio are known to have been completed.