How Man Ray became one of art history’s most radical creative forces

Discover the artist’s fascinating rise from an American in Paris to internationally renowned photographer

man ray

The period between the two World Wars was an extremely rich time in the history of modern society. All of the arts were deeply affected, including photography, and one of the period’s most influential figures was the American Man Ray. During the period, the artist established himself in Paris as a Dadaist turned Surrealist, a creative genius who endlessly experimented, walking the line between abstraction and figuration as he seamlessly crossed media.

Encouraged by Marcel Duchamp, who introduced him to the Parisian avant-garde, Man Ray transformed the medium of photography as a tool of artistic expression with his radical darkroom techniques and keen involvement with the founders of Surrealism. Today, his impact can be felt in not just the art world, but the fashion industry and even pop culture, as the artist found great success as a portraitist, filmmaker, and iconoclast.

Man Ray (1890–1976), Marie-Laure de Noailles, 1936. 8 5⁄8 x 6 5⁄8 in (21.9 x 16.8 cm). Estimate: $25,000-35,000. Offered in A Century of Art: Photographs from the Gerald Fineberg Collection on 19 September-3 October at Christie’s online

Below, we help you discover the people, places and ideas that inspired Man Ray’s art as well as his most significant contributions to the field of photography and beyond.

A Surrealist sensibility

Femininity, sexuality, chance and the line between dreams and reality were prevalent themes in Man Ray’s oeuvre, as well as Surrealism at large. Images associated with fertility, such as eggs and spheres, were a common motif in his work. He breathed life into the art movements of his day, inventing new artistic techniques and embodying novel ways of presenting his ideas. His approach followed Surrealism’s overarching quest to move beyond existing social structures in favour of sexually uninhibited modern society.

Man Ray (1890–1976), Rayograph, 1923. 11 5⁄8 x 9 1⁄8 in (29.5 x 23.1 cm). Estimate: $150,000-250,000. Offered in Photographs on 19 September - 4 October at Christie’s online

Man Ray’s photographic Rayographs often included images of spirals, coils, and other everyday objects that made for dramatic silhouettes in the artist’s experimental photograms.

From New York to Paris

The artist was born Emmanuel Radnitzky in 1890 in Philadelphia to Russian Jewish immigrants. After his family changed their last name to Ray in 1912 to evade anti-Semitic discrimination, Emmanuel would go by Man Ray, a name that stuck throughout his career in New York, Paris, and Los Angeles.

In New York City, where he grew up, Man Ray studied architecture, engineering, and mechanical drafting in high school, but he ultimately wanted to become a painter. A visit to the Armory Show in 1913, which introduced American audiences to Post-Impressionism, Cubism, and most importantly the work of Marcel Duchamp, gave him the courage to take on larger and more radical projects. He worked diligently for the rest of the decade on his paintings while dreaming of success amongst Europe’s avant-garde.

Man Ray (1890-1976), Joseph Stella and Marcel Duchamp, 1920. 8 1⁄8 x 6 1⁄8 in (20.6 x 15.5 cm). Estimate: $7,000-9,000. Offered in Photographs on 19 September - 4 October at Christie’s online

Soon after Duchamp moved to New York in 1915, Walter Arensberg, a collector who hosted informal salons for artists at his Upper West Side apartment, introduced him to Man Ray, sparking a lifelong friendship between the two. Along with Katherine S. Dreier, the formidable grande dame of the early American avant-garde, Duchamp and Man Ray established the Société Anonyme, Inc. The organisation, dedicated to the study and promotion of Modern Art, was the first of its kind in the United States. Their debut exhibition opened on East 47th Street in 1920, and the trio’s work would prove instrumental in popularising Dada in the US.

Inspired by Duchamp’s “readymades”, Man Ray’s work broadened to include found objects, photography, film, and sculpture alongside his paintings. Struggling to gain an audience in New York and guided by Duchamp who believed the young artist would have more success in Europe, the two went to Paris during the summer of 1921. Equipped with his parents’ support and $500 from the collector Fernand Howald, Man Ray took up residence next door to Duchamp on rue de la Condamine.

Man Ray (1890–1976), Noire et Blanche, 1926. 6 5⁄8 x 9 in (16.8 x 22.8 cm). Sold for: $4,020,000 on 17 November 2022 at Christies in New York

Introduced to Duchamp’s artistic circle, Man Ray began photographing the city’s preeminent artists, writers, and patrons, such as André Breton, Gertrude Stein, and Pablo Picasso. In 1925, Man Ray participated in the first Surrealist exhibition in Paris at the Galerie Pierre, alongside Jean Arp, Max Ernst, André Masson, Joan Miró, and Picasso. At this point, the artist was producing some of his most iconic images, his creativity further fuelled by the muses and lovers of this period.

Kiki de Montparnasse, Man Ray’s ultimate infatuation

In 1922 in the artistic Paris neighbourhood of Montparnasse, Man Ray met Alice Prin, known to posterity as Kiki de Montparnasse. Kiki was a Parisian celebrity, an established performer and model to artists including Chaïm Soutine and Kees van Dongen. She was also a painter herself. Over much of the ensuing decade, Kiki and Man Ray had a passionate yet tempestuous romantic relationship, resulting in some of Man Ray’s most recognisable works.

One of the most iconic images of the 20th century, Man Ray’s 1924 masterpiece, Le Violon d’Ingres, features Kiki’s nude posterior with two f-holes painted on her back, evoking a violin. The f-holes achieved through a straightforward darkroom technique in which the shape was produced by shining light through holes cut in that shape in a thick board held over the photographic paper. The title explicitly references Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres, both a proficient painter and violinist. In French, to have a violin d’Ingres is to possess a great secondary talent or hobby, making the referece to Kiki one that is both erotic and intimate.

Man Ray (1890–1976), Le Violon d’Ingres, 1924. 19 x 14 ¾ in (48.5 x 37.5 cm). Sold for $12,412,500 on 14 May 2022 at Christie’s in New York

The work’s title also suggests that Man Ray, who continued to paint and sculpt throughout his lifetime, possibly considered photography his violin d’Ingres. In fact, the medium would ultimately come to cement his artistic legacy. In May 2022, Le Violon d’Ingres sold at Christie’s New York for $12.4 million, becoming the most valuable photograph ever sold at auction.

Kiki is also the enigmatic subject of Man Ray’s Noire et Blanche, first published in the Paris edition of Vogue in May 1926. In this image, the artist juxtaposes his model’s ‘perfect oval’ head with a theatrical African Baule mask, which, in part, could suggest Kiki’s own career as a performer.

Rayographs: Man Ray’s distinct photograms

In the winter of 1921 to 1922, Man Ray stumbled upon the creative potential of the photogram. He experimented enthusiastically in the darkroom with this technique, dubbing his creations ‘Rayographs’. The technique hearkens back to the very discovery of light-sensitive chemicals and the invention of photography. Man Ray undisputedly reinvigorated the technique from one of mere outlines, to a complex artistic technique.

He wrote to a patron: ‘I have never worked as I did this winter, I have freed myself from the sticky medium of paint, and am working directly with light itself. I have found a way of recording it. The subjects were never so near to life itself as in my new work, and never so completely translated to the medium.’

Man Ray (1890-1976), Rayograph (Les Champs Délicieux no. 12), 1921-22. 8 7⁄8 x 6 7⁄8 in (22.5 x 17.5cm). Estimate: $30,000-50,000. Offered in Photographs on 19 September-4 October at Christie’s online

Created without a camera, Rayographs were made by placing objects directly on top of photographic paper in the darkroom, exposing them to plain light without the aid of a negative, and then processing the paper as one normally would through successive baths of developer, stop and fixer. As a result of the light passing through or being blocked by the objects on the paper, the technique yielded intriguing shadings on the photographic paper at once revealing and obscuring the objects themselves. Over his career, Man Ray created hundreds of Rayographs, continuing to employ the technique through the 1950s.

Inspired by Duchamp’s cinematic work, Man Ray also experimented with moving pictures from the 1920s through 1940s and became a respected filmmaker. Combining and building on his Rayograph techniques, he exposed whole strips of film to objects in order to animate them on screen. His Surrealist short films introduced a freneticism and freedom to filmmaking that undoubtedly influenced art film and Hollywood’s own experimentation.

Lee Miller, another romance for the ages

While working together in Paris between 1929 and 1932, Man Ray and Lee Miller were involved in a professionally fruitful yet romantically turbulent relationship. An established American model, Miller started as an assistant, and became both a collaborator and muse of Man Ray. She would ultimately return to New York as a photographer and photojournalist in her own right.

Man Ray (1890–1976), Lee Miller, c. 1930. 8 ¼ x 6 ¼ in (20.9 x 15.8 cm). Estimate: $20,000-30,000. Offered in A Century of Art: Photographs from the Gerald Fineberg Collection on 19 September-3 October at Christie’s online

Soon after their split, Man Ray produced Object to be Destroyed, a testament to his devastation, and a piece he’d continue to remake later in his career, featuring various titles, such as Indestructible Object. When a drawing of the work was published the Surrealist journal This Quarter, it was featured the following instructions from Man Ray: ‘Cut out the eye from a photograph of one who has been loved but is seen no more. Attach the eye to the pendulum of a metronome and regulate the weight to suit the tempo desired. Keep going to the limit of endurance. With a hammer well-aimed, try to destroy the whole at a single blow.’ Man Ray used an image of Miller’s eye for the various copies of the work that he created.

Embracing chance with solarised photography

In 1931, Man Ray and Miller discovered a new technique when the light accidentally turned on in the darkroom: solarisation. This occurs when a piece of paper in the developing tray of a chemical bath is exposed to an image from a negative. If the lights are flashed on for even half a second, it exposes the paper, producing an uncontrollable, unique result.

Man Ray (1890–1976), Solarized Portrait of Mary Gill, 1931. 9 x 6 7⁄8 in (22.8 x 17.4 cm). Estimate: $10,000-15,000. Offered in Photographs on 19 September-4 October at Christie’s online

Man Ray frequently employed this technique with images of the female nude, which, once solarised, would appear as if a luminous halo was surrounding the form. Tonal reversals added to the otherworldly aura.

Man Ray’s portraiture

Beyond his abstract experiments, Man Ray was a celebrated portraitist. What began as casual images of the Parisian avant-garde would evolve into commissions to capture party scenes and immortalise important cultural figures and benefactors.

Man Ray (1890–1976), Jean Cocteau, c. 1922. 10 ¼ x 8 in (26 x 20.3 cm). Estimate: $12,000-18,000. Offered in A Century of Art: Photographs from the Gerald Fineberg Collection on 19 September-3 October at Christie’s online

Blurring the line between fine art and commercial photography, Man Ray was one of many notable artists hired to shoot fashion photography for Vogue, Harper’s Bazaar, Vanity Fair, and more. As was the case with Noire et Blanche, these commissions resulted in some of the artist’s most important images. He also shot for major fashion designers, such as Schiaparelli and Chanel. Man Ray’s relationship to fashion and influence on the industry was explored in a 2023 exhibition at MoMu, a fashion museum in Antwerp, Belgium.

The Hollywood years

During World War II, the threat of Nazism drove Man Ray from Paris to Los Angeles, where he resided from 1940 until 1951, when he returned to the French capital. Unlike most of his artist friends who moved to New York, Man Ray is believed to have journeyed to the West Coast for its similarities to the South of France, a region that held many fond memories and where he enjoyed carefree summers just before the war disbanded his community.

Man Ray (1890-1976), Juliet and Margaret in masks, Los Angeles, c. 1945. Gelatin silver print. Image: 13⅝ x 10¾ in (34.5 x 27.3 cm); sheet: 13⅞ x 11 in (35.2 x 27.9 cm). Sold for $75,000 in Photographs on 6 April 2023 at Christie’s in New York

During his time in the US, he returned to painting and organized several exhibitions in LA, San Francisco and New York, further exposing the US to Surrealism and modern art. The subjects of his photographic portraits now included starlets such as Ava Gardner and Ruth Ford, who through Man Ray’s eyes were depicted like never before. In LA he also met the final great love of his life and muse, Juliet Browner, a dancer and model. In 1946, the two tied the knot in a double wedding with their friends Max Ernst and Dorothea Tanning.

In November 1976, Man Ray died from a lung infection in Paris, the city that shaped him and from which he’d shape a new generation of avant-garde artmaking.

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