Man Ray: 5 Facts on The American Artist Who Defined an Era

Man Ray was instrumental to the Dada and Surrealism art movements that took over the 20th century. Here, we’re exploring five facts about the incredible artist who helped define an era.

Dec 9, 2019By Kaylee Randall
Man Ray with artworks; Black Widow (Nativity), 1915 and La Prière, silver print, 1930
Man Ray with artworks; Black Widow (Nativity), 1915 and La Prière, silver print, 1930


Man Ray was instrumental to the Dada and Surrealism art movements that took over the 20th century. Remembered for his unique approaches to photography and his ability to explore the unconscious with everyday items, Ray is celebrated as a pioneer.

Here, we’re exploring five facts about the incredible artist who helped define an era.


Ray’s Given Name Was Changed by His Family due to Fear of Anti-Semitism

Los Angeles, Man Ray, 1940-1966


Ray was born as Emmanuel Radnitzky in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania on August 27, 1890, to Russian Jewish immigrants. He was the eldest child with one younger brother and two younger sisters. The entire family changed their last name to Ray in 1912, fearing discrimination due to anti-Semitic sentiments that were common in the area.

Later, Ray changed his first name to Man which came from his nickname, Manny, officially taking on the name Man Ray for the rest of his life.

But his fear of anti-Semitism, which was, of course, understandable for what was happening in the 20th century, never went away. He would, later in life, retreat from his home in Paris back to the United States during World War II since it was not safe for Jewish people to live in Europe at the time. He lived in Los Angeles from 1940 and stayed until 1951.

For most of his life, Ray was secretive about his family origins and went to a lot of effort to keep his real name a mystery.


Ray Turned Down an Opportunity to Study Architecture to Pursue Art

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As a child, Ray excelled in skills like freehand drawing. His ability to draft made him a prime candidate for architecture and engineering trades and was offered a scholarship to study architecture.

But, he was also a star in his art classes at school. Although he apparently hated the attention he received from his art teacher, he decided to pursue a career as an artist instead of taking the scholarship he was offered. He studied art on his own by visiting museums and continuing to practice outside of an academic syllabus.


Promenade, Man Ray, 1915/1945


In art, he was heavily influenced by the 1913 Army show as well as European contemporary art and in 1915, Ray had his first solo show. His first significant photographs were created in 1918 and he continued to build a unique style and aesthetic throughout his career.


Ray Brought the Dada Movement to New York with Marcel Duchamp and Katherine Dreier

Photo of Man Ray with Marcel Duchamp at his home, 1968.


Ray’s early art showed signs of cubism’s influence but after meeting Marcel Duchamp, his interest turned heavily toward Dadaism and Surrealist themes. Ray and Duchamp met in 1915 and the two became close friends.

Their shared interests allowed the friends to truly explore the ideas behind Dada and Surrealism such as deep abstraction and the mystery of our unconscious minds.

Ray helped Duchamp make his famous machine, Rotary Glass Plates which is considered one of the earlier examples of kinetic art and the artists together were huge promoters of Dada in the New York scene. Along with Dreier, they founded the Dada Societe Anonyme, Inc.


Rotary Glass Plates, Marcel Duchamp, 1920


Ray was also part of the first Surrealist exhibition in 1925 at the Galerie Pierre in Paris alongside Jean Arp, Max Ernst, Andre Masson, Joan Miro, and Pablo Picasso.


Ray Popularized the Photography Techniques of “Solarization” and What Would Later Be Coined “Rayographs.”

Although Ray worked with various artistic mediums, he’s probably the most well-known for his photographic innovations. Solarization was developed by Ray and Lee Miller, his assistant and lover.

Solarization is the process of recording an image on the negative which reverses the shadows and light exposure. The result was interested “bleached” effects and the term “Rayograph” was born to categorize his collection of experiments on photosensitized paper.


The Kiss, Man Ray, 1935


Other examples of “Rayographs” were discovered by accident. He developed a way to take camera-less photographs using this light-sensitive paper through a process called “shadowgraphy” or “photograms.” By putting objects onto the paper and exposing them to light, he could produce interesting shapes and figures.

He created many important works using this technique including two portfolio books, Electricite and Champs delicieux. And another interesting example of Ray’s experimentation with photography is his photograph called Rope Dancer which was made by combining a spray-gun technique with a pen drawing.


One of Ray’s Most Famous Pieces Indestructible Object Was a Response to His Break-up with Miller

Ray and Miller


Although Ray liked to keep his private life under wraps, he expressed his pain at the dissolution of his three-year relationship with Miller through his art. She left him for an Egyptian businessman and it seems that he didn’t take the news too well.

The work known as Indestructible Object (or Object to be Destroyed) was originally intended to stay in his studio. The object was his “spectator” upon first construction in 1923. As if that’s not curious enough, he made a second (and now, more famous) version of the piece in 1933 on which he attached a cut-out of a photograph of Miller’s eye.

This new version was lost upon Ray’s move from Paris to the U.S. in 1940 and a few replicas were made, culminating in the well-known 1965 version.


Indestructible Object (or Object to Be Destroyed), replica, 1964


When it was shown, the object, a metronome, was affixed with a set of instructions that read as follows:

“Cut out the eye from a photograph of one who has been loved but is seen no more. Attach the eye to the pendulum of a metronome and regulate the weight to suit the tempo desired. Keep going to the limit of endurance. With a hammer well-aimed, try to destroy the whole at a single blow.”

Ray died in Paris on November 18, 1976, due to a lung infection. There are two known posthumous versions of this piece that came about in Germany and Spain in 1982.

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By Kaylee RandallKaylee Randall is a contributing writer, originally from Florida. who is deeply interested and invested in the arts. She lives in Australia and writes about health, fitness, art, and entertainment while sharing her own stories of transition on her personal blog.