Man Ray Creates the Rayograph Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

Man Ray created the Rayograph, a cameraless form of photography exploited by Man Ray and others in experimental photography and motion pictures.

Summary of Event

Man Ray was an American artist living in Paris during the heady 1920’s, when the City of Light was the cultural capital of the world. A painter as well as a photographer, Man Ray, like many of his artistic colleagues, sought to push the aesthetic conventions of both media. In the process, as a result of an accident that occurred while he was developing photographs, he “discovered” the cameraless Rayograph in 1921. Rayographs Photography;Rayographs Art;Rayographs Photographers;Man Ray [kw]Man Ray Creates the Rayograph (1921) [kw]Rayograph, Man Ray Creates the (1921) Rayographs Photography;Rayographs Art;Rayographs Photographers;Man Ray [g]France;1921: Man Ray Creates the Rayograph[05270] [c]Arts;1921: Man Ray Creates the Rayograph[05270] [c]Photography;1921: Man Ray Creates the Rayograph[05270] [c]Motion pictures;1921: Man Ray Creates the Rayograph[05270] Man Ray Cocteau, Jean Desnos, Robert Duchamp, Marcel Picabia, Francis Tzara, Tristan

Man Ray’s style as a painter evolved with and through cubism, Dadaism, and Surrealism. Although associated with these important movements, Man Ray is perhaps best described as an iconoclast whose basic pursuits were motivated by devotion to personal as well as artistic freedom. Like his peers, he was intrigued with new technological means of artistic expression, especially photography and its kinetic cousin, the motion picture.

Man Ray in Paris, 1934.

(Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division, Carl Van Vechten Collection)

Born Emmanuel Radnitzky in Philadelphia in 1890, at the age of fifteen he was given the name Man Ray by his family after they moved to New York City. As a teenager, he was an aspiring painter who took classes at New York’s Academy of Fine Arts. In 1910, he became associated with New York photographer Alfred Stieglitz Stieglitz, Alfred and Stieglitz’s 291 gallery, where he absorbed the latest developments in both painting and photography. His earliest photographs were expressive portraits in the Stieglitz manner. In 1915, Man Ray met French artist Marcel Duchamp, who became a decisive influence, a frequent collaborator, a close friend, and a worthy chess opponent (chess was the preferred game of the Dadaists). It was Duchamp who first encouraged Man Ray’s interest in assemblages and collages and who urged the young American to move to Paris.

Before he made the move, Man Ray—as well as Duchamp and French painter Francis Picabia—became involved with the New York Dadaist Dadaism group. During its heyday from 1916 to 1922, the Dadaists—whether in Paris, Berlin, Zurich, or New York—attacked traditional artistic and societal norms, stressing the absurd nature of life and the role of the fortuitous in artistic creation. In part a reaction to the barbarisms perpetrated by the “civilized” nations of Western Europe during World War I, Dadaism also drew inspiration from the groundbreaking psychological ideas of Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung, especially those dealing with the unconscious and the subconscious. Dadaism’s whimsical faith in the role of chance in artistic creation was to prove pivotal in creating the mind-set that enabled Man Ray to “discover” the Rayograph.

In 1921, Man Ray moved to Paris, where he sought his fortune as a painter. Although encouraged in his painting by friends, he was forced by his inability to sell his paintings to rely on portrait and fashion photography to make a living. One night in late 1921, as he was making contact prints of fashion poses shot earlier in the day, he accidentally mixed an unexposed sheet of photographic paper into a group of already exposed prints in a developing tray. As he waited in vain for an image to appear, regretting the waste of paper, he placed some laboratory equipment—a glass funnel, a glass graduate, and a glass thermometer—on top of the unexposed paper. When he turned on the light, an image began to form, “not quite a simple silhouette of the objects as in a straight photograph, but distorted and refracted by the glass more or less in contact with the paper and standing out against a black background, the part directly exposed to the light,” he recalled in his 1963 autobiography, Self Portrait.

That fated, fortuitous photographic happening reminded him of his boyhood days in Philadelphia, when he had placed leaves in a printing frame with photographic paper and exposed them to the sun, thereby obtaining white negatives of the leaves. It illustrated the same principle that had been employed in the earliest photographic experiments of Thomas Wedgwood and Humphry Davy, who in 1799 also placed objects on sensitized materials, thus provoking the inventive-scientific quest that eventually resulted in practical photography.

Man Ray was ecstatic with his spontaneous invention. Grabbing whatever objects were handy—his hotel room key, a handkerchief, pencils, a brush, a candle, and a strand of twine—he churned out a batch of cameraless photographs that he immediately dubbed Rayographs. He quickly discovered that he could place his randomly deployed objects directly onto dry photographic paper. The next day, when noted Dadaist poet Tristan Tzara spotted several of the new creations, Tzara proclaimed them “pure Dada creations,” far superior to similar attempts—simple flat textural prints in black and white—that had been made in 1918 by the German Christian Schad, an early Berlin Dadaist.


The art world’s fascination with Man Ray’s cameraless photos had several major consequences. First, the Rayograph helped make Man Ray a celebrity. With Tzara’s enthusiastic endorsement of the cameraless photos as exemplars of Dadaist ideals, Man Ray’s work was soon embraced by all manner of Parisian painters, writers, and musicians. Man Ray was invited to fashionable parties, concerts, and gallery openings and was embraced by fashionable young women, including Kiki, Paris’s most notorious model. No less a figure than poet Jean Cocteau commissioned a Rayograph for the frontispiece of a deluxe edition of his work. In the United States, Vanity Fair published a November, 1922, piece on Man Ray accompanied by four of his “meaningless masterpieces,” thus launching the photographer onto the international scene.

Tzara once again waxed rhapsodic on the subject of the Rayograph in an introduction to the 1922 publication of Les Champs Délicieux (the delicious fields), a portfolio of Man Ray’s cameraless photographs. In 1923, the French poet Robert Desnos extolled the Rayograph’s spontaneous beauty and suggested that it belonged to the realm of poetry, as it was neither completely abstract nor completely realistic. Even when the novelty of the Rayograph began to wane, Man Ray, by virtue of his newly elevated artistic and social status, was increasingly busy as a high-profile portrait and fashion photographer. His now more stable income and enhanced reputation enabled him to pursue his painting and other artistic activities with greater concentration and success. In the wake of the Rayograph’s triumph, his paintings and other artworks were accorded far greater regard and respect.

The discovery of the Rayographic principle had first been made by Christian Schad Schad, Christian in 1918, but Schad’s cameraless photos, or Schadographs, as they were dubbed by Tzara, faded into the footnotes of the decade’s photographic annals. Given the Rayograph’s greater depth, shading, and variety, Man Ray rightly deserves credit as one of the most significant photographic innovators of the 1920’s. It is also important to note that Man Ray had no knowledge of Schad’s work; indeed, his “discovery” was completely spontaneous and therefore his own.

With its notoriety and fashionable cachet, the Rayographic technique was picked up by others. Of these experimenters, the most significant were Lucia Moholy Moholy, Lucia and László Moholy-Nagy. Moholy-Nagy, László Using the term “photogram” to describe their investigations, which were carried out in the 1920’s at the Bauhaus Bauhaus in Germany, these cerebral explorers of light believed that a machine-based art such as photography should not involve personal feelings and traditional sentiments. Instead, they saw their photograms as formal light compositions. In contrast, Man Ray and his partisans regarded the Rayographs as Dadaist adventures relying on spontaneity, improvisation, and wit. Also significant was the fact of the Rayograph’s unique singularity. Each cameraless photo was a one-of-a-kind creation for which no template, or negative, existed for precise duplication.

At a broader level, the notoriety of the Rayographs triggered a host of other light-graphic experimentations. By the late 1920’s, a debate about the intrinsic nature and functions of photography was raging. The basic issue pitted realism against abstraction. Man Ray offered an approach to abstraction based on the expression of chance effects and intuitive, even unconscious, states of mind and mood. His cameraless images also were provocative in that they called into question traditional lines of demarcation between “fine” and “applied” art. With the collapse of the economies of the Western European and American democracies in the late 1920’s and the subsequent rise of fascism in the 1930’s, the debate over realism versus abstraction was largely deferred as artists, including photographers, turned to documenting the period’s social and political upheavals.

In the 1920’s, Man Ray also became a force in the quixotic evolution of the avant-garde or experimental film. His first foray into motion pictures, Le Retour à la raison (1923; Return to Reason), Return to Reason (film) incorporated an animated version of the Rayograph, in which various objects were placed directly onto 35-millimeter film that was then exposed to light. Again, no camera was employed. Using the Rayographic technique to register such common objects as sprinklings of salt and pepper, pins, tacks, and springs, Man Ray intercut these with camera-shot images of some of his Dadaist mobiles and of nude torsos. The rather randomly selected images were hastily assembled at the behest of Tzara, who wanted to include a cinematic experiment for what has now become known as the last Dadaist soiree. Man Ray later described the effect: “It looked like a snowstorm, with the flakes flying in all directions instead of falling, then suddenly becoming a field of daisies as if the snow had crystallized into flowers. This was followed by another sequence of huge white pins crisscrossing and revolving in an epileptic dance, then again by a lone thumbtack making desperate efforts to leave the screen.” Although the film was only three minutes long, Man Ray’s Dadaist thwarting of conventional cinematic expectations associated with the making of films led to cries of protest and then of support, and finally to an intense debate. The Dadaists were delighted that the film had been provocative. The soiree was an evening that has lived on in the chronicles of modern art.

Man Ray used the same Rayographic process for passages of Emak-Bakia (1926), Emak-Bakia (film)[Emak Bakia] an experimental film influenced more by Surrealistic principles than by those of the recently deposed Dada movement. More significant, Man Ray’s films—including collaborations with Duchamp, of which only Anemic Cinema (1926) Anemic Cinema (film) survives—constituted an important aspect of the 1920’s continental avant-garde that offered a clear, indeed radical, alternative to the dominance of the Hollywood story film and to the documentary. By stressing abstract, nonrepresentational imagery and the role of the subconscious and unconscious in accord with the shifting precepts of Dadaism and Surrealism, Man Ray’s films remain central and influential texts in the canon of the avant-garde or experimental cinema. They also demonstrate the clear and continuing relationship between photography and the motion picture.

The Rayograph—whether by that name or referred to as Rayogram, Schadograph, or photogram—remains a touchstone in the evolution of photography as a graphic art form in which the basic concerns are aesthetic rather than representational. It also stands as a reminder of cameraless photography’s most prominent and influential exponent, Man Ray. “The poet of the darkroom,” as Jean Cocteau called Man Ray, received the Gold Medal at the Photography Biennale in Venice in 1961 and the German Photographic Society Cultural Award in 1966. Rayographs Photography;Rayographs Art;Rayographs Photographers;Man Ray

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Berg, Charles. “Film and Photography.” In Film and the Arts in Symbiosis: A Resource Guide, edited by Gary R. Edgerton. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1988. Provides a concise overview of the intertwined relationship between photography and the motion picture. Discusses Man Ray’s film Return to Reason. Includes bibliography.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Hopkins, David. Dada and Surrealism: A Very Short Introduction. New York: Oxford University Press, 2004. Concise introduction to these art movements discusses their international nature and the range of media employed. Also addresses the debates surrounding them, including issues of quality and attitudes toward women.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Man Ray. Self Portrait. 1963. Reprint. New York: Bulfinch, 1999. Well-drawn chronicle of Man Ray’s amazing life, focusing on his escapades in the avant-garde circles of Paris, New York, and Hollywood with the rich and famous as well as the talented and beautiful, including such eminent compatriots as Marcel Duchamp, Pablo Picasso, and Alfred Stieglitz. Illustrated.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Moholy-Nagy, László. Painting, Photography, Film. Translated by Janet Seligman. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1969. Includes an incisive account titled “Photography Without Camera: The ’Photogram.’” Moholy-Nagy, in addition to being an artist, was a meticulous and visionary theorist whose ideas are as valuable today as they were in 1927. Copious illustrations include several cameraless Rayographs by Man Ray and photograms by Moholy-Nagy.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Penrose, Roland. Man Ray. Boston: New York Graphic Society, 1975. Thorough and balanced overview of Man Ray’s varied accomplishments, reflecting insights based on the author’s long-standing friendship with the artist. An essential and highly readable resource. Comprehensive illustrations include reproductions of Rayographs as well as frames from the film Emak-Bakia.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Phillips, Christopher, ed. Photography in the Modern Era: European Documents and Critical Writings, 1913-1940. New York: Metropolitan Museum of Art/Aperture, 1989. An essential collection of previously out-of-print or untranslated essays and prolegomena, including poetic paeans to Man Ray’s Rayographs by Cocteau and Tzara.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Rosenblum, Naomi. A World History of Photography. 3d ed. New York: Abbeville Press, 1997. Authoritative and lavishly illustrated history of photography presents discussions and examples of the cameraless photography of Man Ray, Christian Schad, Lucia Moholy, and László Moholy-Nagy. Includes bibliography.

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Categories: History