Man Ray
Biography, Photos of Dada/Surrealist Artist.

Pin it


Man Ray (1890-1976)


Early Life and Artistic Education
The Armory Show
New York Dada
World War II and After
Other 20th-Century Photographers

For the meaning of technical
and historical terms, used by
20th century camera artists, see:
Art Photography Glossary.

Images created by Man Ray
are also widely available online
in the form of poster art.

For top creative practitioners, see:
Best Artists of All Time.

For the best works, see:
Greatest Modern Paintings.

For an explanation of the
terminology, see:
Art: Definition and Meaning.


A central figure in avant-garde art of the early 20th century, Man Ray is best known for his contribution to fine art photography (and his Rayographs), as well as painting, sculpture and object art. He also helped to promote the modernization of American art: together with Francis Picabia (1879-1953) and Marcel Duchamp (1887-1968), he established Dada in New York. At the same time, Ray taught himself the new art of photography, to reproduce images of his own paintings, but he soon became one of the greatest photographers of his day. In 1921 he moved to Paris, playing a key role in both Dada and Surrealism, creating both photos and art objects: Gift (1921, reconstruction Museum of Modern Art, New York) is one of his most famous found objects of the period. (See also Duchamp's "readymades".) But for years he earned his living as a sought-after fashion and portrait photographer. As a side line, he produced fetishist portraits, including images of fellow artist Meret Oppenheim, his mistress Kiki of Montparnasse (Marie Prin) and his wife Juliet Man Ray, a dancer. From the mid 1930s he returned to painting, although his paintings are generally less highly regarded. In the 1940s, to avoid the German occupation of Europe, he returned to America and settled in Hollywood. Disappointed that America only recognised him for his photography, rather than his painting, film or sculpture, he returned to France in 1951. He continued to focus on both photography and painting until his death in 1976. (For more about the evolution of camera art, see: the History of Photography. For biographies of early pioneers, see: 19th-Century Photographers.)



Early Life and Artistic Education

Man Ray was born Emmanuel Radinski, the son of a Russian-Jewish emigrant tailor in Philadelphia. From about the age of 15, he became known simply as Man Ray, a less foreign sounding name. His family background in tailoring left a strong impression on the artist: much of his later work make references to tailoring materials like sewing machines, pins, swatches of fabrics and needles. At the age of 7, his family settled in New York. As a child, he showed an early interest in art, sketching and visiting local art museums which housed Old Masters and contemporary paintings. On graduation from High School, Ray turned down a scholarship to study architecture, choosing to focus on fine art instead. He studied art in the evening, while working as a commercial artist and technical illustrator by day. His first painting activity was making copies of 19th century Masters. In 1911 the Ferrer Center opened in New York, founded by anarchists with the aim of liberating the working classes from liberal, class-conscious educators. Ray was one of the first students, and here he studied under Ashcan School painters Robert Henri (1865-1929) and George Bellows (1882-1925). During his time at the school, Ray made rapid progress. He also became an early member of the modernist circle around Alfred Stieglitz (1864-1946) and Edward Steichen (1879-1973) at their "291" Gallery in New York.


The Armory Show

In 1913 Ray visited the Armory Show, also known as the International Exhibition of Modern Art, which was organized by the Association of American Painters and Sculptors. This show was the first time much of America came into contact with European modern art. An extensive number of styles were on display including Impressionism, Fauvism and Cubism. Marcel Duchamp's highly abstract painting Nude Descending a Staircase (1912, Philadelphia Museum of Art), caused an uproar among the traditional American visitors.

Strongly attracted by the Armory's modernist works, Ray began experimenting with abstract art, in particular Cubism. As well as Cubist paintings, he also produced chromatic abstractions, "aerographs" (paintings made with an airbrush) and constructions made with 'found' objects. In 1915 Ray began a lifelong friendship with both Marcel Duchamp and Francis Picabia, and had his first solo show in which he showed examples of his latest drawing and oil painting. He was also introduced into collector Walter Arensberg's circle, which opened a number of doors for the young artist.

In 1916, he produced his first large painting, The Rope Dancer accompanies Herself with Her Shadows (1916, Museum of Modern Art, New York). An apt metaphor for a man who risked losing his creative equilibrium for the sake of experimentation, this colourful abstract work was influenced by Duchamp's Nude Descending a Staircase. According to the artist, the "shadows" in the painting were conceived accidentally when he saw that scraps of cut-out coloured paper had formed a chance arrangement of abstract patterns. He incorporated these patterns into his painting.

New York Dada

Ray's thirst for experimentation led him (1920-21), along with Duchamp and Picabia to co-found the New York branch of the provocative Dada movement, a task which cloaked serious creative innovation in a guise of irreverent humour. He also founded the journal New York Dada. In addition, he collaborated with Katherine S Dreier (1877-1952) and Duchamp in establishing the Societe Anonyme, an association whose aim was to promote modern art in America, and which paved the way for the founding of New York's Museum of Modern Art.

In 1920 Ray helped Duchamp create his first piece of kinetic art, a rotary of glass plates which turned by a motor. Together they also produced one issue of the New York Dada magazine. However, unhappy with the pace of modernization in art in New York, Ray declared "Dada cannot live in New York. All New York is dada, and will not tolerate a rival".


So in 1921 Man Ray moved to Paris, where he quickly made contact with numerous other artists, and got to know the work of other photographers, including Eugene Atget (1857-1927). Unlike many Americans who only spent a short time in Paris, Ray was to remain for the next 20 years. Here, he became an influential member of the International Surrealist and Dada circles of artists and writers, which included such figures as Raoul Hausmann (1886-1971), John Heartfield (Helmut Herzfeld) (1891-1968) Max Ernst (1891–1976), Salvador Dali (1904–89), Andre Breton (1896-1966) and Pablo Picasso (1881-1973). Later that year, he had his first solo show in Paris, at which he exhibited one of his best known pieces of object or junk art: Gift (1921). The original is lost, but a reconstruction (c.1958) is on view at the Museum of Modern Art, New York. Displayed alongside his collages, paintings and aerographs at the Parisian Gallery, Gift had been made only hours before the opening of the show. (He glued a row of 14 nails to the bottom of an iron and painted it black.) The object attracted a lot of attention, and by the end of the opening it had 'disappeared'. Other surrealist-style works from this time include Enigma of Isadore Ducasse (1920, now known only through one of his own photographs), and Indestructible Object (1923, now only in replica).

His most famous painting from his 19-year stay in Paris is probably Observatory Time (1934, William N Copley private collection), depicting an enormous pair of floating lips which suggest a naked body. His best known sculpture of the period is Emak Bakia (1927, private collection), and Metronome (Object to be Destroyed) (1932, Hamburg Kunsthalle).

Ray continued to construct, to paint, and generally experiment with differing types of art, but it would be through his photography that he became most famous.


Quite by accident Man Ray discovered a new form of pictorialism - what he called the Rayograph and what others called the photogram. In simple terms, it was an image produced without a camera by placing items directly onto sensitized paper and exposing them to light. The results gave a mysterious, moody effect. One of his most famous series of photos were taken of Surrealist artist Meret Oppenheim in 1934, depicting her standing naked next to a printing press. Other famous photos are of those of Kiki of Montparnasse (Alice Prin), an artist’s model, who was his mistress for most of the 1920s. Kiki was often placed in such a way that her body suggested other objects.

Ray's photos were minimalist, often funny or absurd, and others artists responded positively. He photographed most of his contemporaries including Constantin Brancusi (1876-1957), Joan Miro (1893-1983), Marcel Duchamp and Pablo Picasso. He also created erotic nudes, in a highly tasteful manner - The Violin of Ingres (1924) remains a popular poster, even today. In 1922 Ray published his first set of photographs in a book entitled The Delightful Fields. With his lover Lee Miller, who was also his photographic assistant, he re-worked the photographic technique of solarization. See: Is Photography Art?

As it was, Ray became famous as a portrait photographer: all of society queued at his studio. In addition, he was one of the earliest fashion photographers, taking fashion photos for Harper's Bazaar and Vogue. [Compare the later fashion photography of artists like Irving Penn (1917-2009) and Richard Avedon (1923-2004) in the 1950s and 60s, and that of Annie Leibovitz (b.1949) in the 1990s and 2000s.] In the late 1920s he experimented with Surrealist themes in photography, which were very successful. At the same time, he made contributions to avant-garde films, some of which have become classics of the Surrealist genre.

World War II and After

In 1940 Ray returned to America to escape the German Occupation. He moved to Hollywood, remaining there until 1951. Disappointed with America's response to his art, and missing the creative atmosphere of Paris, he returned and remained there for the rest of his life. In Paris he gave priority to photography, creating Dada images and inventing new semi-abstract effects. He remained popular as a portrait photographer and increasingly so for nudes. He also continued to work in painting, sculpture and film. He died in 1976 at the age of 86. He is not only remembered for the experimental nature of his work, but for the important role he played in encouraging revolution in art. Buried in the Montparnasse Cemetery, his tomb stone reads 'unconcerned, but not indifferent'.

In its review of 20th century visual arts, ARTnews magazine placed Man Ray among the 25 most influential artists, citing his pioneering camera-work and dark room experimentation, together with his innovation in film, sculpture, collage, assemblage, painting, and conceptual art.

Works by Man Ray can be seen in many of the best art museums throughout the world.

Other 20th-Century Photographers

Edward Weston (1886-1958)
Paul Strand (1890-1976)
Walker Evans (1903-75)
Henri Cartier-Bresson (1908-2004)
Robert Mapplethorpe (1946-89)
Jeff Wall (b.1946)
Cindy Sherman (b.1954)
Andreas Gursky (b.1955).

• For more biographies of other Jewish artists, see: Famous Painters.
• For more about painting in America, see: Homepage.

© All rights reserved.