Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Happy Birthday Man Ray!

So the fascinating avant garde photographer and artist Man Ray would have been 122 years old yesterday, but alas he's dead.  I've got to hand it to the Huffingtonpost, they are prolific with the puff pieces regarding long dead artists--mostly famous white guys (Gaudi, Buckminster Fuller, Hitchcock, Man Ray).  Still, these pieces do stimulate me to post on these icons long gone.

Emmanuel Radnitzky was born in Philadelphia and then, as an early hipster, lived in Williamsburg, Brooklyn with his family.  In the face of anti-Semitism, the family changed their surname to Ray, and Emmanuel shortened his nickname "Manny" to Man.  He moved to the city, befriended Marcel Duchamp, was inspired by the famous Armory Show of 1913, and then he and Duchamp became full-fledged Dada-ists, especially after moving to Paris in 1921.  Here are two of my favorite Man Ray "readymades:"

Cadeau 1921

Object Intended to be Destroyed 1923

As one can see, both of these manipulated objects strike a discordant note, as they veer sharply from their utility to become something strange and other.  These works certainly adhere to the famous Comte De Lautremont quote, "As beautiful as the chance meeting on a dissecting table of a sewing machine and an umbrella."  The combination of the disparate elements Man Ray uses creates something new, an object both familiar and unexpected (the very definition of Ernst Jentsch's "Uncanny").

In a sense, Man Ray's pictograms, which he called "rayographs," stem from a similar notion of rendering the familiar strange.  He would place objects on photographic paper and then expose them to light.  Once the images are developed, objects maintain links to their referent, and are quite indexical, yet these objects are transformed rather than captured.  Many of these rayographs are pretty whimsical as well.

Rayograph 1922

Rayograph 1923

Rayograph 1926

Man Ray was also known for his re-discovery, and prolific use of the solarisation technique, where white light is flicked on during the development process and effectively burns/solarises the image, creating a very unique effect.  Rumor has it that his muse and lab assistant, Lee Miller, really re-discovered this process by accidently turning on the lights when processing the film.  Something had crawled over her foot in the darkroom.  Inspiration can come from mice in the dark!

Lee Miller 1930

Solarisation 1931
I became interested in Man Ray and his crew in the early 1990s, when I was getting my MA in Cinema Studies at NYU.  I was taking this class with Annette Michelson called "Dada/Pop/Surrealism;" me and about 60 other students.  NYU was a real degree mill for Masters students back then, so our graduate seminars were really huge.  Michelson didn't know I existed, but I was in awe of her.  Her lectures were mind-blowing, and she actually hung out with people like Man Ray and Duchamp.  In the notes on her lectures, I would always write things like "Wow," and "Amazing."  She was so incredibly inspiring and compelling.

In her class, I wrote a long paper about Man Ray's photography and films in relation to gender and representation.  I was fascinated by the way in which women and objects were both rendered uncanny and equivalent.  Unfortunately, Professor Michelson was not that impressed--"B+"  Here are some of the images that inspired those passions and questions:

Le Violon d'Ingres 1924

Noire et Blanche 1926
Woman with Long Hair 1929
Prayer 1930
Also, here is his most evocative film, L'Etoile de Mer (1928)