August 27, 1890, is the birthdate of Man Ray, the photographer and avant-garde artist who was a bellwether for art in the 20th century. Through a combination of playfulness, invention, and a desire neither to be part of the mainstream or even necessarily understood, Man Ray was an artist of constantly evolving output, who tasted of many of the major movements in the world of art.
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A man who constantly reinvented himself, Man Ray went to lengths to keep secret details of his early life and family. What is known that he was born Emmanuel Radnitzky, in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Both his parents were immigrants from czarist Russia, and Manny, as he was known growing up, was their first child.
When he was seven, in 1897, the family moved to Brooklyn, New York. Manny’s father was a tailor, who both worked in a garment factory in New York and had a small tailoring business he ran out of the family home, in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. His mother also made clothes at home, and so the house was filled with swatches and patches, mannequins and designs - all elements that later made their way into Man Ray’s work, however much he may have wanted to set himself off from his origins.
After the family shortened its name from Radnitzy to Ray, Manny went further and abbreviated his given name to “Man.” In 1909, he graduated from Boys High School, in Brooklyn, where he learned both drafting and technical drawing – and turned down a scholarship from architectural school in order to begin learning to be an artist.
Living at his parents’ apartment, he supported himself by working as a commercial artist and technical illustrator while taking occasional art classes and working on his own paintings during his free time.
'New York is Dada'
The 1913 Armory Show in New York, which introduced many Americans to the avant-garde, had a powerful influence on Ray. One artist displaying there, Marcel Duchamp, soon relocated from Paris to New York, and became a friend and collaborator. Another friend, photographer Alfred Stieglitz, introduced Ray into the artistic society of New York, and also taught him the basics of the photographic craft.
Duchamp, Ray and the art patron Katherine Dreier formed what Ray named the Societe Anonyme, which organized exhibitions, catalogs, lectures and even musical performances of modern art.
Ray was very taken by the irreverent, if not nihilist, work coming out of the Dada movement. But he quickly concluded that it was not appropriate for New York. As he wrote to a friend, “All New York is dada, and [it] will not tolerate a rival.” Instead, in 1921, Ray went to Paris. There he took up in residence in Montparnasse, which was thick with like-minded artists and writers.
Rayographs and elites
He worked in almost every medium imaginable, making mobiles, short films, collages, sculpture and what we would today conceptual art. His “rayographs” were composed by placing objects on photographic paper, exposing it to light and then developing it. He made a living, however, and is probably best known for, photographing many of the artistic elite – Picasso, Hemingway, Gertrude Stein, and also the model and performer called Kiki of Montparnasse (Alice Prin), who became his companion and muse.
In a 1999 article about him, Artnews suggested that, "Man Ray offered artists in all media an example of a creative intelligence that, in its 'pursuit of pleasure and liberty,' unlocked every door it came to and walked freely where it would."
As a Jew, and an American, in France after the start of World War II, Ray waited until just before the Germans’ entry into Paris before fleeing. He returned to the U.S., settling in Hollywood, California, where he focused artistically on his painting, and again supported himself doing fashion and celebrity photography, which he described as “a solution for a frustrated painter who couldn’t sell his stuff.”
Shortly after his arrival, Ray met the Romanian-Jewish dancer Juliet Browner, whom he married in a double wedding with his artist friends Max Ernst and Dorothea Tanning.
In 1951, Ray and Browner returned to Paris, where they remained until the end of their lives – he in 1976, she in 1991.