Man Ray: Avant-Garde Alchemist

“To create is divine, to reproduce is human.”

Man Ray, born as Emmanuel Radnitzky, was an early 20th century avant-garde photographer who spent most of his career in Paris, France in the company of the great Dadaists and Surrealists of the time.

Although Man Ray considered himself first a painter, he is best known for his avant-garde work in photography and film. He was also a famous fashion and portrait photographer. In 1999, ARTnews magazine named Man Ray “one of the 25 most influential artists of the 20th century.”


So, how does someone named Emmanuel Radnitzky end up with a stylish moniker such as “Man Ray”? Well, his family surname was changed to “Ray” in 1912 at the suggestion of Man Ray’s brother. The family surname was changed as a reaction to the anti-Semitism that was rampant in Brooklyn, New York at the time.

Emmanuel was called “Manny” for short and Emmanuel eventually shortened his nickname to “Man” and added that to his new surname “Ray.” He would gradually begin to use his new names as one single combined name, “Man Ray.”


Man Ray’s early art training exposed him to New York’s Ashcan school and the photography of Alfred Stieglitz. However, little of this influence actually made its way into his work. At the 1913 Armory Show, Man Ray saw cubism for the first time and he eagerly adopted this new artistic style into his early works.

Man Ray became friends with Marcel Duchamp and soon began to adopt the ideals and practicalities of the Dada movement. At this point Man Ray gave up “conventional painting” in favor of radical anti-art (i.e., Dada) and he developed unique and sometimes mechanical ways of making photographic images combined with the “readymades” he created in conjunction with Marcel Duchamp.

Man Ray and Marcel Duchamp

The year 1921 took Man Ray to Paris and he soon settled into Montparnasse, a section of Paris favored by artists. For the next 20 years he made his mark on the new art form of photography. There he met the great artists, poets and authors of the time.

Many well-known artists and personalities sat in front of his lens. People such as Pablo Picasso, Max Ernst, Jean Arp, Joan Miró, James Joyce, Gertrude Stein, Jean Cocteau and Ernest Hemingway all had their portraits taken by Man Ray.

Glass Tears by Man Ray

In addition to directing several avant-garde short films, Man Ray continued to explore photography as an art form. He reinvented the photography technique of solarization which he called Rayographs.

Man Ray also continued his unique collaborations and friendships with Marcel Duchamp and Francis Picabia until forced to leave Europe in 1940 because of the Second World War.

Woman and Mask by Man Ray

Man Ray moved to Southern California where he met the love of his life, Juliet Browner, a trained dancer and experienced artists’ model. They married in a double wedding with Max Ernst and Dorothea Tanning in 1946.

Man Ray had always called Montparnasse his home and he returned there after the wedding. Man Ray died in Paris in 1976 where he and his wife, Juliet, are buried next to each other in the Cimetière du Montparnasse.

Author: The Artist

Artist, Designer & Photographer

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