“Of course, there will always be those who look only at technique, who ask 'how', while others of a more curious nature will ask 'why'. Personally, I have always preferred inspiration to information.”— Man Ray
Man Ray was no conventional photographer who combed the city and countryside in search of motifs. His world was the studio, and especially the darkroom, where he coaxed visions from photographic paper with silver and salt, like an alchemist. A Surrealist and friend of Marcel Duchamp, he probably thought it too banal to simply portray his artist friends. Ray sought unconventional poses and arrangements, alienated his subjects by means of surprising accessories, extreme cropping, or solarization. As his working prints reveal, the definitive— frequently extreme—croppings were often established in a second step.
Some of his models appeared on the verge of sleep (Dora Maar, 1936), others emerging from nocturnal darkness (Salvador Dali, 1929), still others flipped from positive to negative (André Breton, ca. 1930). He pasted glass beads on the cheeks of a girl, Lydia, to show her "crying" in the famous photograph Tears (1932), an artificiality derived by the director Man Ray from the props of the film world.
Man Ray was a specialist in the field of the female nude. The list of illustrious befriended beauties he photographed unclad was a long one: Meret Oppenheim, Lee Miller, Nusch Eluard, Suzy Solidor, and his favourite model, the legendary Kiki de Montparnasse, queen of the bohemian world of Paris. Nor did he shy away from objects of a fetishistic character, portraying Mlle. Dorita in the coils of a python (1930), or Lee Miller with anatomical weaves of wire placed around her head or arm (1930). This was the Art Deco period, intrigued by the theme of man and machine.
His series of female faces, stylized and made-up to the verge of the mask-like, culminated in an unusual composition. Next to the head of Kiki, resting with eyes closed, he placed an African Baule mask (Ivory Coast), creating a highly evocative Surrealist icon (Noire et Blanche, 1926). The power of this image was surpassed only by Le Violon d'lngres (1924), the back view of a nude wearing a turban, dadaistically alienated by the addition of the two "clefs" of a —cello. Man Ray's sense of the puzzle of human perception was so strong that even his photographs for the fashion magazine Harper's Bazaar showed that he was not taken in by beautiful illusion.
In his Rayograms, made without a camera, Man Ray's visual fantasies came to full flower. Placing various objects directly on photographic paper under the enlarger and exposing them, he fixed the shadows they cast. Feathers, coils of string, springs, and other unorthodox objects formed semi-abstract compositions in white on black. The process enriched the repertoire of Surrealist techniques by a new and enthusiastically received variant.
Excerpt taken from 50 Photographers You Should Know by Peter Stepan