Man Ray’s Innovative Approach to Art

‘Le Temoin’ (The Witness) is an example of a modern style of furniture, boasting Dada style influence, created by Man Ray in 1971. It measures 60 in. wide x 30 in. high x 18 ¼ in. deep. and sold for $1,980 at auction in 2014. Image courtesy Design by Cambi Casa D’Aste and LiveAuctioneers

Man Ray’s approach to artistic expression spanned styles, media and oceans. His work was definitive and inclusive, and his legacy includes invention and introduction in various forms.

According to some, his work is defined by his paintings (reflective of Cubism, Futurism, Dada, and Surrealism), while others see his photographs as the creative space where his abilities shine. Perhaps, it’s not a matter one or the other, but both.

He was born Emmanuel Radnitzky in 1890 to parents who both worked in textiles, his father as a tailor and his mother a seamstress. The family, Russian-Jewish immigrants, moved to Brooklyn, New York, after their son was born, and ultimately changed their last name to Ray, in response to fears of anti-Semitism, according to information at The would-be artist shortened his name to Man, from the nickname Manny. His appreciation and aptitude for art and design were evident early on, and by the time he graduated from high school in 1908 he was set on developing a career as an artist.

Fascinating Fact: In addition to his talent as an artist, he possessed skills related to architecture and engineering. He was so gifted that he received a scholarship to study architecture at university, but turned it down, to follow his dream of a career in art.

In addition to formal education, Man Ray was a regular visitor to art galleries and museums in whatever area he called home at a specific time. From New York City to Paris to Los Angeles, it’s reported he remained a student of his craft until his death in 1976, at the age of 86. This spirit of exploration and intrigue is also evident in the various techniques and lasting contributions he developed and helped foster during his seven-plus decade career. Among those contributions was solarization.

Man Ray in his Paris studio in 1975. Source: Image courtesy Wikimedia Commons

Solarization is a process in photography where a partially developed photograph is exposed to light. When the development process is completed, the negative and positive aspects of a photo are reversed, and a halo-looking element is present. Man Ray, along with artist Lee Miller, is credited with inventing solarization for artistic expression. The process was discovered in 1857, but never utilized to create photographs.

One of the stories surrounding this discovery is that it came to be by accident. As explained at, Miller was working with Ray in the darkroom developing photos when she felt something cross her foot. Reacting in panic, she turned on the light and exposed the images. However, Ray’s intriguing mind prompted him to save the images that were thought to be “ruined,” and examine the outcome. It was something Ray spent time fine-tuning to utilize the process to create dramatic photographs. Three years after Ray and Miller’s discovery, they introduced the photography world to their technique.

This sheet-fed gravure by Man Ray, from 1934, featuring Lee Miller and indications of the technique of solarization, sold for $1,000 during a Nov. 6, 2016 auction. Image courtesy Jasper52 and LiveAuctioneers

Fascinating Fact: In addition to creating the process of solarization for artistic use with fellow photographer Lee Miller, they were a couple and she sat as a model for several of Ray’s works. One of the most recognizable works is the 1931 “Observatory Time – the Lovers,” which features an image of Miller’s lips.

Another technique Ray developed and used extensively during his career was the photogram, which was also known as the Rayograph. In its most essential form, the technique is about capturing images without a camera. It’s achieved by placing objects on photographic paper and exposing them to light for a calculated amount of time. This is followed by processing the photo in the usual manner, which results in the creation of a reverse of the image.

Untitled oil on panel painting, circa 1952, signed and dated lower left: ‘Man/Ray/52.’ It sold for $15,000 during a March 19, 2017 auction at Heritage Auctions. Image courtesy Heritage Auctions

In addition to techniques and producing a variety of artwork using various media, Ray was at the forefront of the emergence of modern art. For example, Ray teamed up with his longtime friend and colleague Marcel Duchamp to establish the Society of Independent Artists, a group focused on introducing more people to the Dada style of art. The duo went on to also form the Société Anonyme Inc. in 1920, along with Katherine Dreier, which served as the first space in America that was devoted to the display of modern art. It was the precursor to the Museum of Modern Art.

An example of Man Ray’s sculptural talent is represented in this chess set, circa 1962, made of enamel, metal inlay, wood and polished brass. Board is signed and dated ‘Man Ray 1962,’ and incised signature and number to king reveals ‘Man Ray 17/50.’ The set sold for $18,000 during a September 2015 auction. Image courtesy Wright and LiveAuctioneers

Fascinating Fact: During one of his most prolific periods of artist creation, between the early 1920s and 1940s, he also is created with creating six films: Return to Reason, Emak-Bakia, Starfish, The Mysteries of the Chateau, Attempt at Simulating Cinematographic Delirium, and Dreams That Money Can Buy.

Enjoy one of Man’s films: Return to Reason, circa 1923….

Although it’s been more than 40 years since Man Ray’s death, the impact of his influence is cited among the works of many iconic modern artists including Andy Warhol, Nancy Spero and John Stezaker. Also, Nars Cosmetics, in partnership with the Man Ray Foundation, developed a limited-edition 2017 holiday collection of makeup inspired by Ray’s work, according to an article in Coveteur.

Today, just as when he was actively creating, Man Ray’s influence is as diverse and dynamic as ever.