Emmanuel Radnitzky was born on August 27, 1890, in South Philadelphia to Max Melach (a tailor) and Minnie. In 1897 they moved to Williamsburg in Brooklyn, New York, and in 1912, their son Sam prompted them to change their surname to Ray to help avoid discrimination. Max worked in a garment factory in addition to a side business tailoring from their home, and Minnie designed and made their clothes, often from remnants, while they all helped with his father’s home tailoring business. Many students of art have noted that the sewing business left a distinct mark on Emmanuel, no matter how far he tried to distance himself from his heritage. For he would become an artist.
Young Manny spent much time studying the old masters of visual art, and at school he learned to draft. Upon graduation from Boys’ High School in Brooklyn, he was offered a scholarship to study architecture, but turned it down to pursue art. Disappointed, the family nevertheless rearranged their lives so that he could turn his bedroom into a studio. He earned money as a technical illustrator and commercial artist while honing his more expressive skills. And he chopped his name down to Man Ray.
He practiced the old forms of art, after Rembrandt and Caravaggio, and ventured into Cubism, but just wasn’t feeling it yet. Soon he became friendly with Marcel Duchamp, who was working to show motion in static paintings. That sparked Man Ray’s interest! (Also their friendship would last for 55 years.) Ray moved to an artist colony in Grantwood, NJ, and had his first solo show of paintings and drawings in 1915. Then he got involved with the Dadaists and photography.
Dada was (is) an art form that sprung from Zurich during WWI as a response to the horrors of the war. Dadaist works tend to focus on the absurd, impossible, and edgy. The standard example of dada is a fur-lined cereal bowl (created by Méret Oppenheim). The movement tends to intersect with Surrealism. Man Ray’s most outstanding example is his “Gift” (1921), a flatiron with metal tacks attached to the bottom. Ray and Duchamp published one issue of New York Dada in 1920, but Ray wrote “Dada cannot live in New York. All New York is dada, and will not tolerate a rival.”
In July 1921, Ray moved to Paris, where he leaned heavily toward photographic art (which he had learned from Alfred Stieglitz in New York), becoming the erstwhile creator of Surrealist photography. Between WWI and WWII, he hung out with and sometimes photographed fellow artists such as Pablo Picasso, James Joyce, Gertrude Stein, Jean Cocteau, Salvador Dali, Peggy Guggenheim, Max Ernst, Joan Miró, Paul Klee, and André Breton. Ray participated in the first surrealist exhibition at the Galerie Pierre in Paris in 1925. One work from this period was the metronome with an eye, which he titled “Object to Be Destroyed.” He invented Rayographs, images created on a piece of photographic paper without a camera.
In addition to photography, Ray also created several short films. When Germany was threatening France, he moved to Los Angeles and went back to painting. In his social life, after a long-abandoned and finally dissolved marriage and decades of various affairs, it was during this time that he met (a few days after arriving in 1940) and married (in 1945) Juliet Browner. Juliet was a dancer who had studied with Martha Graham, and an artist’s model, and she was also a first-generation American with Romanian Jewish parents.
In 1948 Ray had an exhibition in Beverly Hills featuring, among other works, his Shakespearean Equations series. He also revolutionized fashion photography. Man and Juliet moved to Paris in 1951, and he continued to produce art. In 1963, he published an autobiography, Self-Portrait.
Man Ray died, reportedly in his studio, of a lung infection on November 18, 1976. His epitaph is “Unconcerned, but not indifferent.”
Juliet Browner did her best to conserve his works, organizing a trust and donating many. She died in 1991, and was buried beside Man Ray, under the epitaph “Together again.”