You might think that calling yourself a surrealist automatically enters you into some secret covenant to which you must dedicate 40 hours a week into being – ‘surreal’. It always seems like that to contribute to a genre you have to embody it and give yourself completely to it. If there’s any artist who disproves this it’s the American photographer Man Ray – the casual surrealist.
Born in 1890, Ray quickly became a huge contributor to surrealism and Dada, especially because he was blossoming in an age of exciting developments in photography during the early 20th century. He showed how photography, usually a mode dedicated to objective portrayals of the fairly wealthy, could be used for the avant-garde equally as effectively. Indeed his work became more valuable to collectors than anyone else, and so he embodied that are relationship between anti-establishment and popularity. He was edgy, but adored by the mainstream collectors, helping to solidify photography as an art form. When originally offered a scholarship to study architecture, he refused and pursued the arts instead.
While originally influenced in art by the Renaissance masters, he quickly moved on to expressionism and cubism as his influence. As well as the writings of Sigmund Freud – perhaps interesting given his previous skill with mechanics of the real world combining with the mechanics of the human mind and its expression. It seems he was taken with the Dada movement, and eventually what became the surrealists – admiring the rejection of classical artistic norms and instead vying for something more off the books. He mixed with the likes of Ernest Hemmingway and Gertrude Stein, soaking up he influence of the movements passionate origins. This eventually led to Ray relocating to France in 1921, encouraged by Marcel Duchamp.
His photos range in their content and style, seemingly covering multiple aspects of perception. Arguably his most famous contribution was in fashion, such as ‘Violin d’Ingres’ (1924) where a picture of his lover nude is pitched in black and white with the lines of a violin on her back. It sounds simple to a contemporary audience, but in his context Ray was doing something seriously strange – his appreciation of the human form, mixing its internal and external desires in a photo, dramatically changed the way many thought of photography and indeed art itself. Ray is probably most well known for his introduction of what are now known as ‘Rayogrammes’ (otherwise known as a photogram.) This is where a subject was captured on a piece of paper without using a camera, as they are placed under intense light on photographic paper, and their shadows create an image. I find this fascinating, it highlights Mans focus on the process of objection rather than just the object itself. These photos often resulted on a focus on the background rather than a foreground – we can only see the shadows of what have been rather than the original object. He seems interested in the relationship between light and dark, how each affects the image of a human, or of any object. How each one clouds our vision and forces us into seeing something a certain way – much how you might view a physical place differently depending on whether it’s raining or sunny.
And yet other photos of his do draw a distinct focus on the object too – which is interesting. He doesn’t stick to a particular formula, rather his photography seems to be an extension of a continuous artistic curiosity. Many of his photos also revolve around still life, one maybe with a lizard crawling across and orb, while another portrays a mannequins head lying detached amongst other objects in a white background. A notable still life addition is ‘The Coat Stand’ (1920) which shows the wooden, patchwork figure of a woman standing as a coat stand. It’s simple, almost playful but still conveys a distinct eeriness that surrealism so often does. I always find that black and white surrealism often carries with it an element of creepiness in a contemporary setting – fuelled by the temporary distance and tropes of the modern horror genre. The way that I look at it is that Ray’s photography is a relationship – it’s always about both the object and the process, whether it’s a rayogramme or the photo has been solarised, the result is always eye-catching, and always with a surreal air. Take for example ‘Markisa Casarti’ (1922) – the picture of a woman distorted so the image is layered over itself, giving the woman a frankly terrifying, otherworldly stare. The focus is both on the object and how the object is presented (as well as an implicit expectation on how we as an audience will perceive the resulting image.)
Of course Man also painted, with works such as ‘Departure of Summer’ (1914) and ‘The Rope Dancer Accompanies Herself with Her Shadows’ (1916.) These display the same sense of experimentation, as well as his cubist/expressionist influence. When there is a consistent figure, they are formed from distinct shapes, other times they are completely abstract – formed only from colours which carry with them complexities of human feeling and inferences of a form influenced by such. But although his surrealist influence carries on through his artwork, Man’s connection to Dada and surrealism is very informal and casual.Though he existed in the circles of other avant-garde artists he rarely engrossed himself as much as other contemporaries. His method instead seems to have been experimentation, as if exploring his own dreams but without going to deep as to interpret them.
As it happens the result is surreal, but it seems that it’s us – the audience – which have labelled him that rather than Ray himself. Whatever discussions of genre can be had about him, his contribution to photography and the amount of surrealists influenced by him are undeniable. Many Ray was a true experimenter. His work continues to do what it always has – defy convention.