Jan Svenungsson

"The Making of Man Ray", in: Man Ray Moderna Museet 2004, Moderna Museet, Stockholm 2004

In April 1976, Man Ray’s autobiography was published in Swedish. I turned fifteen in August that year. At the time, I read a review of the book, with a long quote on how Man Ray made his first film in 1923 by sprinkling salt and nails on film strips in his darkroom – and the commotion that broke out when it was shown. In late 1976, I read the whole book from cover to cover – and it literally changed my life. When I put down his Self Portrait, I had made up my mind to become an artist. A few subsequent events in my life reinforced my decision. But more of that later.

“Inspiration, not information, is the general purpose of this book” Man Ray explained to his publisher. My own experience tells me what he meant, but I also realise that this explanation is not comprehensive. Throughout his life, Man Ray worked with pictures, but a central position in his oeuvre is occupied by a narrative. Why is that? What purpose does it fill? I will discuss some aspects of the interplay between words and images in Man Ray’s work. I believe that the identity issues he grappled with, and the way he tried to resolve them, are exceedingly interesting to compare with many contemporary artist strategies. For better or for worse.

In the early 1910s, when Marcel Duchamp coined the concept of the “ready-made”, he initiated something that was to have significant artistic repercussions. No other isolated event has had a more profound effect or a more central impact on how the art system works today.

A ready-made, in the Duchamp sense, is an everyday object (a shovel, a bottle rack, a urinal, etc) which the artist selects and then re-classifies as a work of art, by naming it art. No technical or practical skill is required of the artist, an element that had been inherent to the creation of any work of art up to that point in art history. The act of virtuosity involved in creating a ready-made is purely linguistic – and therein lies its potency, its attraction – and its danger.

It took nearly fifty years, however, before the shift in paradigm became obvious. Not until the early 1960s and pop art did the ready-made, in numerous mutations, become an essential artistic “medium”. Andy Warhol is but one example of this. From that point, there was no going back: today, re-classification of objects and images into art is a common road; more and more works of art rely on linguistic constructions – and the photograph has achieved an equal standing to painting.

The first artist to grasp intuitively what doors Duchamp had flung open – and who was to complement this through his own work, and contribute fundamentally to the shift in paradigm – was Man Ray. He and Duchamp met in 1915 and remained friends throughout their lives. Man Ray and his wife had dinner with the Duchamps only a few hours before Duchamp died, in the autumn of 1968. Their personalities and backgrounds were entirely different, however, and in some respects their work methods were diametrically opposed. Marcel Duchamp came from a bourgeois, tight knit rural French family. Several of his older and younger siblings became successful artists, while Marcel devoted a large portion of his itinerant life to claiming that he had stopped producing art, and to paradoxically denying his identity as an artist. Emmanuel Radnitsky, on the other hand, was born in Philadelphia, the eldest child of a Jewish couple who had come to the USA only two years previously as poor Russian immigrants. His father was a tailor. Often, the whole family had to assist him with his work. What is usually regarded as Man Ray’s first independent work of art, Tapestry from 1911, is a textile collage. That same year, he took the name Man Ray and refused thereafter to acknowledge any background other than the one he created for himself as an artist. In 1914, he produced a painting where the motif was the name itself – the artist’s name + the year – a complete innovation in the history of art.

In practical terms, these two friends were immensely different by nature; while Duchamp was tall and elegant and nurtured a studied languidness, Man Ray was small and energetic and incapable of holding back from work or experimentation. The best of Duchamp’s works are purely conceptual re-classifications of objects, without embellishments (with some exceptions). Man Ray, on the contrary, worked primarily with “modified ready-mades”, or “objects”, to use a simpler term.

The first of Man Ray’s objects were created in New York in the late 1930s and consist of playful and provoking combinations of everyday things, like words in a line of poetry: a few strips of wood held together by a screw clamp, titled New York (1917), a toy gun held by a huge magnet, called Compass (1920), a mobile made of clothes hangers from the same year, which he called Obstruction.

Man Ray’s approach to creating art is fundamentally non-hierarchical. He had a curiosity about everything, and was a veritable jack-of-all-trades. He made his own furniture and designed ingenious solutions to various problems in his studio. There is an element of trial and error about him: each new work of art, regardless of technique, was an experiment. If it worked, the experiment was a success. Each successful idea can be transferred to different techniques. The idea of ready-mades had a huge bearing on his photography in the 1920s.

With the camera he bought in 1915, Man Ray reproduced and documented his paintings and objects, which became prolific in the latter half of the 1910s. Looking at these pictures today, we discover a characteristic unclarity: Which is the original? When is a photo a depiction, and when is it a work in its own right? There is no unequivocal principle to guide us. Some of the objects simply existed only momentarily: for as long as it took to photograph them. Take the photo Man from 1918, which shows an eggbeater against a wall, with a shadow; or take the photo Woman from the same year, which shows a slightly more complex composition of two bowls and a few clothes pegs. Many of the objects have obviously existed as three dimensional works (they appear, for instance, in photos documenting exhibitions) but have perished and now exist only in the form of a photograph – while others have been reconstructed many times over – and each time been photographed anew. Once the object has been “encoded” and given a title – it can be repeated. What these objects – and photographs – have in common is that they, by virtue of their titles, have an identity that extends far beyond the meaning that the actual motif or material can convey. The objects exist as concepts, even after they have been lost.

Man Ray’s most famous object, Le cadeau (The Gift), was created shortly after he arrived in Paris in 1921, and consists of an iron with a row of nails glued to the flat surface. The object was created at the last moment for an exhibition, was photographed, only to be promptly stolen at the opening. The first photograph of Le cadeau is one of Man Ray’s most powerful images – in competition with the artist’s own reconstructions of the object itself, separately and in editions of between a handful and 5,000 copies. Despite this deluge of “originals”, anyone can easily make their own copy. I made one myself – and my version once featured in a Man Ray exhibition (with the addition of “replica” to the title). My iron currently serves as a book end, with the nails removed – but I can glue them back on whenever I want to. However, no one can remove the conceptual ownership that arose when Man Ray for the first time materialised his idea, gave it a name and documented it.

Throughout his long career – which includes painting, photography, drawing, objects, film – Man Ray achieved a few works in each discipline which have attained a similar iconic-conceptual status and been subject to both his own repetitions and emulations by others, without ever losing their power.

Man Ray rarely took photographs outside the studio. In the sheltered studio environment he could maximise his technical inventiveness, construct special lighting contraptions and exploit chance and accident. All the while, he consistently denied that technical skill had anything to do with the result. In other words, the idea was the prime factor. (“You wouldn’t ask an author what typewriter he uses – so why ask a photographer what camera he uses?”) He appears not to have identified himself unequivocally with being a photographer. Perhaps it was this very lack of “professional pride” that enabled the unconditional experimentation that led to his fame – as a photographer!

When art history is written, and when ageing artists look back on their achievements, astonishing debates may sometimes arise regarding chronology, similar to inventors’ disputes about patent rights. Rayograph is the term Man Ray coined for his camera-less photograph produced by placing objects directly on the photo paper in the darkroom, before turning on the light for a short period and then developing the image. Other photographers, from Fox Talbot and onwards, had produced camera-less pictures before him, but it was not until Man Ray started to develop the technique in late 1921, and gave it a name, that this type of picture became a concept. Man Ray himself claimed that he discovered the technique quite by accident, but it is possible, not to say probable, that Tristan Tzara had shown him similar pictures produced by the German dada artist Christian Schad in 1919. Earlier on, however, in New York, Man Ray had experimented with a similar method of painting (“painting without touching the canvas”), using a pressurised spray painter to paint around objects placed straight on the canvas. He quickly gave a name to this method: aerograph. The word rayograph occurs for the first time in print in 1922. Schad’s corresponding name for his images, schadograph did not appear until 1936. It is interesting, also, to note that the more “neutral” term photogram did not precede Man Ray’s term; photogramme was used for the first time by Lásló Moholy-Nagy in 1925.

Man Ray eventually encountered problems that stemmed from working in more than one field, and relying on photography as a means of earning a living since he moved to Paris. With typical American pragmatism, he had made a virtue of necessity, and became known, in only a few years, as the best – and most expensive – portrait photographer in Paris. Meanwhile, he socialised with the dadaists and surrealists, continued to paint and make objects, and constantly supplied the surrealist periodicals with photographic “illustrations”. But was it possible for a “photographer” to be taken as seriously as a “painter”? Why did so many find it hard to accept that he could be both – at the same time? To which discipline did he belong?

In Man Ray’s life we can study how he went through geographically distinct periods, and how he always experienced a degree of outsidership, which he often turned to good account. In New York up to 1921, he mixed mostly with a small avantgarde, European orientated group of people, which included Europeans who had ended up in New York due to the war. He married a Belgian poet, Adon Lacroix, who introduced him to the most sophisticated French literature. This milieu contrasted sharply with the provincial spirit that prevailed in New York at the time. Man Ray became obsessed with Paris early in his life.

When he moved to Paris, however, he used his American identity to make himself exotic in the eyes of his French friends – and to inspire confidence among his large circle of Anglo–Saxon customers. He prospered – and soon became rich. Alongside his portrait photography (which had two main tendencies: unknown customers who paid dearly, and famous people who often did not pay at all; while the former were more numerous, the latter were more valuable in the longer perspective) he engaged in fashion photography, especially in the 1930s. He was perfect for the American magazines Harper’s Bazaar and Vogue – being a celebrity in his own right, and deft at applying the most radical artistic ideas of the time to commercial photography. None of his artist colleagues, be they surrealists or otherwise, could match his contacts in the highest echelons of fashion and media. Here, again, he could gather useful experiences, but he paid a high psychological price for his professional popularity, and in the 1930s, Man Ray started asking himself, “Does Man Ray need to be re-classified?”

There was no easy answer to this. In 1926, at a very exclusive gallery in Cannes, he had attempted to present a purely photographic exhibition “as though it were painting”. The result was disappointing – not one photo was sold. His next attempt, in 1934, was to publish a lavish book, in cooperation with James Thrall Soby, titled Photographs by Man Ray 1920 Paris 1934. It gives a broad presentation of his (free) work in various photographic fields, except fashion. Each section has an introduction written either by Man Ray himself, or by the surrealists André Breton and Paul Eluard, by Tristan Tzara or Rrose Sélavy (Marcel Duchamp’s female alter ego). All texts are printed in both French and English, with the exception of the text by Sélavy, where the original was in German and is translated into English. The cover photograph in colour shows a woman resting her head dreamily on her arm, framed by a disparate array of objects, including a plaster bust of the photographer (how many photographers have been portrayed as busts?). Page one sports a portrait of Man Ray drawn by Picasso. The section on portraits of famous men starts with a self–portrait. The book is designed to give maximum emphasis to the photographer–artist Man Ray in this pandering to both American and European audiences (and for once, there is no reference to his other work). The carefully selected pictures in the book, however, reflect the lack of formal unity that also characterises Man Ray’s photography, and thus, break against the prevailing norm in books about photographers to this day. In 1934, this book represented a photo–historic pioneering effort. There was no photographic criticism in the proper sense in those days. Photography did not have the status of an independent artistic medium. The book was received enthusiastically in France – but not in New York, to Man Ray’s utter disappointment, where critics said he lacked individuality and emulated this or that.

At around this time, he rented a second studio, to enable him to concentrate on his painting. In the photographic studio he had long been using assistants. In 1937, he published a small book together with André Breton titled La photographie n’est pas l’art (Photography Is Not Art). Later, he would refer to the title as “photography is not art – and art is not photography”.

Man Ray had an American love for the quick repartee and memorable witticisms. He also became proficient in the typical French double entendre. If he could add something to his work with words, he was sure to grasp the opportunity. In the 1910s, he had started writing comments to his works. On one occasion, he even replied publicly to a critic who had written an unfavourable review. But not everything could be controlled. A new war broke out in Europe, prompting him to change his scene, with yet a new experience of outsidership and a new focus on language and words.

Having stayed for as long as possible in Paris – as an American Man Ray could claim neutrality vis-à-vis the Germans up until 1940 – he returned to New York in August 1940 in a state of despondency. He was adamant that he would not resume working as a commercial photographer. When he was able to reconstruct his life, he chose the role of painter and “free” artist. He embarked on painting replicas and versions of paintings he had left behind in occupied Paris, anticipating that most of his oeuvre would be lost, and worked from photographic reproductions and from memory. He settled in Hollywood, where he had ended up a few months after his return, more or less by accident. The day after his arrival in Hollywood, he met Juliet Browner, with whom he was to share the rest of his life.

During his years in California, Man Ray re-classified his identity as an artist. His refusal to resume his photographic profession was baffling to the clients who contacted him, and had dire financial consequences for him. His photography was restricted to the private sphere. He took hundreds of portraits of Juliet and a few close friends. He photographed his paintings and objects for the sake of documentation. Above all, he painted. A few solo exhibitions were organised and the majority of these did not include any photographs. He was invited to talk about his work at various events and found that he enjoyed lecturing. In his autobiography, he proudly describes how he always lectured without notes, but it also emerges that he at about this time – the mid-1940s – started formulating a collection of quirky comments on art, which he soon came to interpolate intentionally with slight variations, whenever an opportunity arose. In his autobiography, he mentions “reserve arrows aimed at the same target”. I tend to think of these phrases as “soundbites”. Here are a few examples:

“To me the artist was the privileged being who could free himself from all social constraints – whose only objective should be the pursuit of liberty and of pleasure.”

“There is no progress in art, any more than there is progress in making love. There are simply different ways of doing it.”

“As for any attempt at evaluation of the work, since there was no criterion to go by, the appraisal was arbitrary and futile.”

Using these and similar phrases, Man Ray began to erect a form of verbal scaffolding around his disparate work, in his increasingly vigorous attempts to maintain the right of interpretation. The album Objects of My Affection is an example of this. He strives to construct an overall logic for artistic creation, which does not always have to be based on cold facts. For instance, he writes,

“I paint what cannot be photographed /.../ [and] I photograph the things that I do not wish to paint.”

In fact, it is easy to see that practically all Man Ray’s figurative paintings and drawings from 1921 and onwards were based on photographs. Often, there are more complex motives behind the work than Man Ray was prepared to admit. But with Man Ray, every successfully contrived phrase, conceived originally to serve as an “explanation”, can take on a life of its own that brings it close to the status of artwork. Perhaps one could even call them “language objects”.

By the end of the 1940s, Man Ray’s intensifying work with spoken and written language, which was probably driven by his frustrated efforts to reach an audience in Hollywood, led him to the idea of making a form of ”language object” out of his entire life. He started on his autobiography, a work that would take nearly fifteen years to complete. Long before that, in 1951, Man Ray and Juliet left Hollywood and returned to Paris, where they moved into a remarkable studio on rue Férou, near Place St. Sulpice.

One day in May 1978, I visited this studio myself for the first time. Since reading Self Portrait nearly one and a half years earlier, I had been obsessed by Man Ray, surrealism and dada to a degree that perhaps only a teenager can muster. In the book, his attitude and curiosity, coupled with some kind of fundamental pragmatic optimism and an ability to always land on his feet, are presented as a universal principle approach and an artistic principle that becomes larger than the story of his life itself. I was irresistibly inspired, just as he had intended. The world seemed to lie in wait, and I wasn’t satisfied by just reading the book – I wanted to see things and meet people. I had missed Man Ray himself by a few months; he died at the end of 1976. But in London in the summer of 1977, I was advised to contact the surrealist, collector and artist Roland Penrose, who also turned out to be married to Lee Miller – but I didn’t know that at the time. In September that year, I stepped into his apartment on Hornton Street, which was packed with surrealist masterpieces, and in January 1978, he presented me, totally unprepared, to Man Ray’s widow, Juliet. She was tiny and fragile and had trouble with her eyesight. Nevertheless, she looked very much like the photographs, and I noticed she had a unique sense of humour. We became friends, and I was invited to Paris. From then on until the late 1980s, Man Ray’s studio was a focal point in my life. I returned to Paris as often as I could, and spent many extraordinary days exploring the studio and getting to know its nooks and crannies and hoards of treasures. During this period, I gradually began to come into my own as an artist, and it has been important to me that I was inspired both by Man Ray’s linguistic “picture” of his life and by being in close contact with what lay behind it.

Man Ray continued working sporadically on his autobiography throughout the 1950s, and it was not completed until the early 1960s. It was published in the USA in 1963 and in a French translation the following year. The publication coincided with a revaluation of the oeuvre of Duchamp, which also rekindled interest in Man Ray. Many doors that had until then been closed to him suddenly opened.

The book mentions only one exact date, the day of his arrival in France, 14 July, 1921. The date is wrong, however – in fact, Man Ray arrived a week later, but that would not have been the French national day. 14 July is the day when the Bastille was stormed, the start of the French Revolution, the overturning of the old society, the dream of unlimited freedom. By borrowing this date, Man Ray sets the tone for his book.

The story he presents is selective (his parents are not even mentioned by name) and chronologically incoherent, yet it achieves its purpose of establishing the desired image of Man Ray’s life and work. The method is subtle and ostensibly self effacing, since so much of the book is devoted to keen portraits of friends and colleagues (all of whom are famous) which together form a gridwork through which the contours of Man Ray himself emerge. The effect is strongly identifying, giving readers the feeling of being there, and that everything is infused with meaning and charm. What was both his weakness and his strength – being a jack-of-all-trades – is portrayed neither as strength nor weakness but simply as a necessity, the only possible option for an artist driven by ideas, where the principal idea is to be as free as possible.

Man Ray now applied his flair for “styling” – an asset when producing the monolithic portraits of so many men and women, which he used to help them be more like themselves – on himself and his own life. His carefully orchestrated story of his life as an artist becomes the hub to which all the disparate ideas can be traced and explained. The aura of the story sheds light on all his works.

When Man Ray made photographic portraits he always used a lens with long focal length and had the camera on a tripod. Nearly all the contact copies in his archive of negatives show the person in full length, with radical crop marks jotted on them by Man Ray. The final photos are always enlargements, even when the glass negatives were very large to start with. A similar approach is apparent in the book, combined with Man Ray’s frequently expressed admiration for Cezanne’s decision to leave a bare patch where he has nothing to say, or does not want to. By publishing his narrative version of himself, Man Ray succeeds in making a statement about “Man Ray” that no one can ignore from then on. Ultimately it is about registering his trademark.

The studio on rue Férou gradually became a more public part of Man Ray’s enactment of himself. In 1951 when he moved in, it was hardly more than a shell, an empty tank, 7-8 metres high, with windows at the top through which only the sky was visible. Juliet was dismayed, but Man Ray began working single-mindedly to create his universe in what was initially a disconcerting prospect. He built a kitchen and bathroom, erected a balcony with a bedroom underneath, with an intricate system of revolving tables. The shelves along the walls were filled with objects, and things that might one day be turned into objects or incorporated in a picture – only one person knew. Drawings and photographs were collected in folders in cupboards and drawers. In the 1960s, he increasingly reproduced older works: new editions of photographs, multiple objects, masses of etchings and litographs based on existing pictures. This is yet another aspect of Man Ray’s work on “Man Ray”; By multiplying his works he made them indestructible. At the same time, he was anticipating a development that has grown more and more pronounced since the mid–1990s, and which has involved a revaluation of photography: if a work of art exists in an edition, it is considered more valuable, not less. In Man Ray’s studio the difference between the original and copy becomes irrelevant – since the studio itself was the most complex materialisation of the story of Man Ray – the artist’s magnum opus.

The actual work surfaces in the studio are ridiculously small, a narrow landing for painting, a diminutive work bench, a large desk, a cupboard for a darkroom (without running water), all underlining the artist’s indifference to technique. But the studio was also a meeting place and a place for discussions. Man Ray and Juliet received a constant flow of visitors in the 1960s and ’70s. When Man Ray died, Juliet continued this tradition on her own. There is a long list of publications in the vein of “A Visit to Man Ray”. One usually does not have to read far into the texts to find soundbite upon soundbite, entertaining and thoroughly familiar, and yet still meaningful.

The studio had grown into much more than a workplace and a habitat. It had become a stage for Man Ray’s enactments of himself in the role of a completely free artist, which he started in 1911 by changing his name, and pursued with the script published in 1963 as his Self Portrait.

Jan Svenungsson