Man Ray considered himself a painter above all, but it was his masterful manipulation of light and lens that made him one of the most influential artists of the 20th century. "The tricks of today are the truths of tomorrow," the iconoclastic modernist remarked in a 1967 interview in Popular Photography about his practice, which encompassed painting, sculpture, film and poetry, in addition to photography. The justice of this observation is borne out by the current popularity of his rayographs and solarized nudes, "tricks" that revolutionized the medium.
Man Ray was born Emmanuel Radnitzky in Philadelphia in 1890 to Russian Jewish immigrants; the family moved to Brooklyn seven years later. (In 1912, in reaction to the then-prevalent anti-Semitism, the Radnitzkys became the Rays, and Emmanuel became Man, a shortening of his nickname, Manny.) After graduating high school, the young Emmanuel was offered a scholarship to study architecture at Columbia University but decided instead to pursue a career in art, using a room in his parents’ home as a studio and supporting himself through stints as a commercial illustrator. He learned the rudiments of photography from the art dealer and photographer Alfred Stieglitz, at whose 291 gallery he met Marcel Duchamp, who became his friend and collaborator. In 1921, finding the frenzied streets of Gotham no match for Dada — "All New York is Dada and will not tolerate a rival," he once quipped — Man Ray moved to Paris.
Through ceaseless experimentation, Man Ray transformed photography into "something as slippery and uncontainable in its various guises as the artist himself," says Mason Klein, curator of "Alias Man Ray: The Art of Reinvention," which is on view at the Jewish Museum in New York through March 14. Klein points out that even as he explored the full potential of the camera, the photographer also left it behind, making "cameraless images," which he dubbed rayographs. These one-of-a-kind prints were created by placing objects directly onto the surface of photosensitive paper and then exposing it to light. Man Ray discovered the process accidentally when he turned a light on in the darkroom while developing pictures for the French fashion designer Paul Poiret. Although he was not the first or the only artist to use the technique — László Moholy-Nagy and Christian Schad (who called the results Schadographs) also experimented with it — he took the new form to an unprecedented level, says Denise Bethel, director of the photographs department at Sothebys New York, who credits Man Ray with "giving the flat, two-dimensional images more depth, more excitement and mystery."
Rayographs account for 6 of the artist’s top 10 works at auction, where they usually fetch anywhere from $40,000 to more than $400,000. Earlier examples, from the 1920s, usually attract the most interest, says Bethel: "They have more of the immediacy of the new form. You see Man Ray still solving problems." Joshua Holdeman, head of Christie’s photographs department, notes that a connection to Surrealism also increases a Man Ray photo’s appeal. At a Christie’s Paris auction in November 2005, for instance, the fact that an untitled 1923 rayograph was a gift from the artist to Max Ernst contributed to its $406,542 price tag (more than double its high estimate). According to the New York dealer Francis Naumann, rayographs sell privately for anywhere from $150,000 to $500,000.
Also highly coveted are Man Ray’s solarized nudes. Solarization consists of exposing a photo to bright light during development. The result is otherworldly, full of unnaturally brilliant whites and outlines so dark they look etched. In 2006 Phillips de Pury & Company in New York sold Solarized Nude (Natasha), taken in 1931 but printed sometime between 1960 and ’69, for $102,000 against a high estimate of just $30,000. Man Ray also played with negative prints. He employed the technique in a 1930 portrait of Jacqueline Goddard, one of his favorite models, making her seem absolutely electrified, her eyes and hair glowing, and in addition rotated the image so that she seems to defy gravity. A signed print of the picture sold for $374,500 at Sotheby’s New York in 2008.
Man Ray extended his innovations to the commercial photography with which he supported himself while living in Paris in the 1920s and ’30s. He took hundreds of portraits, which now go for between $2,000, for pictures of anonymous sitters, and the low six figures, for those of celebrities. He quickly emerged as "court photographer to the avant-garde," as the critic Geraldine Norman has put it, capturing the Parisian artistic and literary elite, from Gertrude Stein and Georges Braque to James Joyce. "Man Ray’s eye saw the personality, the essence of the subject," says the New York photography dealer Edwynn Houk, who is bringing a selection of the artist’s solarizations, rayographs and other unique works, priced from $45,000 to $150,000, to the AIPAD Photography Show, at New York’s Park Avenue Armory from March 18 through 21.
Mention Man Ray and certain iconic images immediately come to mind — Le violon d’Ingres, for instance, which shows his lover Kiki de Montparnasse with the F holes of a violin painted on her nude back. Although reproductions of these emblematic works are everywhere, the originals are extremely rare to the market — not to mention difficult to identify — and command Man Ray’s highest prices. His record at auction, $607,500, was achieved at Christie’s New York in October 1998 by two prints, positive and negative, of one of his most recognizable images, the strikingly stark Noire et blanche (1926), first published in the May 1926 issue of French Vogue, which juxtaposes Kiki’s pale face with a dark West African mask. A presentation print — one given as a gift and not part of the numbered edition — of Glass Tears (1930-33), showing the Surrealist photographer Lee Millers face with small glass beads glued to it, was sold privately in 1999 by the New York dealer Peter MacGill for a reported $1.3 million to the San Francisco collector John A. Pritzker.
Such stunning prices aside, around half of Man Ray’s photographs, from Surrealist-inspired fashion shots to his series of sculptural objects based on mathematical equations, fetch less than $25,000 at auction and in private deals. What determines their value is less cut and dried than for the work of most other photographers, where edition size and print date are crucial. Man Ray had no patience with the art market’s preoccupation with originals. When someone would ask him for a "vintage print" of one of his photographs, he’d reply, "I’m not a wine." He made prints from negatives he had created years earlier, gave duplicates of negatives to labs, allowed assistants to make prints and neglected, during his peripatetic life among New York, Paris and Los Angeles, his personal cache of negatives and contact prints, today safeguarded in the Centre Pompidou, in Paris. The artist’s stamps, too, can be problematic. "You never know why Man Ray stamped photographs," says Holdeman. "And he often used newer stamps for old prints — lending them for reproduction, giving them as gifts, imprinting to copyright. You have to consider the stamps on a case by case basis." MacGill agrees. "It was a game for him," he observes. "With Man Ray you have to be careful. Things aren’t always what they appear." Alleviating the confusion somewhat is a new study of the artist’s stamp impressions written by the Man Ray scholar Steven Manford and released by Paris’s Librairie Serge Plantureux.
The exposure in the late 1990s of a major Man Ray-forgery operation led to the conclusion that many "vintage" works had actually been printed posthumously. It was a watershed for many collectors, says Paul Messier, a Boston-based conservator of photographs and works on paper: "It used to be that the image was most important; whether it was an early or late print didn’t matter. [Now] more and more, people want to understand when a print was made, finding out as much as possible through scientific methods such as paper-fiber analysis, as well as through a work’s provenance and markings. It is a good thing — a sign of the photography marketplace taking on standards prevalent in other fine-art markets."
Of course, Man Ray had ambitions in the fine-art field, too. But the fact that it was his photographs, not his paintings, that were forged indicates the aesthetic judgment of the market. "It wasn’t that he wasn’t good at the other, but he had magical powers behind the camera," says Naumann, noting that the artist himself did not want to be labeled as a master of either medium: "He wanted simply to be known as a modernist."
"Man Ray" originally appeared in the February 2010 issue of
"Man Ray" originally appeared in the February 2010 issue ofArt+Auction. For a complete list of articles from this issue available on ARTINFO, see Art+Auction's February 2010 Table of Contents.