Each week, we bring you the backstory of work featured in our collection, written by a member of our curatorial team.

Électricité, 1931, Chrysler Museum of Art        

by Haley Temin, Associate Curator

“I photograph the things that I do not wish to paint, the things which already have an existence.” — Man Ray

In an age of rapid technological innovation, the use of photography as an art form has completely transformed. Taking pictures on your camera at a concert, the temporary photos shared on Snapchat, capturing every course brought to your table at the restaurant with your iPhone—the idea of recording and documenting the events and subjects in our everyday lives has monumentally evolved, and yet has become somewhat mundane. Nevertheless, the beauty behind photography still stands in its ability to capture a fleeting moment in time or simply express an emotion or subject matter through a modern artistic medium. Achieving this mode of expression and a true pioneer of his time, Man Ray was one of the most technically innovative and artistic photographers of the twentieth century. With his impressive ability to navigate the worlds of both commercial and fine art, he was able to achieve great success in both the United States and Europe, revolutionizing the medium of photography forever.

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Le Souffle, 1931, Chrysler Museum of Art

Born Emmanuel Radnitzky in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, Man Ray adopted his pseudonym in 1909 out of fear for the aggressive anti-semitism running rampant across the country. Soon after, Man Ray would become one of the key figures of both Dada and Surrealism, making him one of the only American artists to be associated with both movements. His passion for art began at an early age; he excelled in his art classes and frequented museums to study the Old Masters and expand his own talents. His motivation to explore the history and different mediums of art proved to be a solid foundation for the creativity and skillfulness exemplified throughout his artistic career. In 1918, he moved to France where he would spend the next 18 years of his life, discovering his style and producing some of the most profound photographs ever seen. While Ray’s true passion lied with painting, he was never able to make money this way and only initially taught himself photography in order to reproduce his paintings and mixed media works. However, his love for painting was what made his photographs so remarkable. He was the first artist to really use the camera with a painterly eye and therefore was able to transform a simple photograph into a work of art.

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Lingerie, 1931, Chrysler Museum of Art 

Man Ray’s series, Électricité, is an impeccable example of his legacy as America’s greatest Surrealist photographer. This dynamic collection created in 1931 consisted of 10 photographs, dubbed “Rayographs”, and is one of Man Ray’s most acclaimed works. The series was commissioned by a private Paris power company who wanted to promote the domestic consumption of electricity. At the time, electricity was not a standard feature of homes which meant most of the homes in France relied on natural gas, wood, or coal for necessities like lighting, heating, and cooking. In Électricité, Man Ray manifests how electricity, essentially an invisible force, could be made into a subject as well as a modern medium of art. He was able to show the audience (in this case, potential customers) the duality of photography—presenting the subject of electricity and how it might effectively improve the quality of life for Parisians, but also its ability to invoke emotion and response through this medium. With appliances—including light bulbs, a toaster, an iron, and fan—he used electric light to cast the objects’ shadow on photographic paper and added wavy trails of power cords and wires to symbolize the unseen effect of electrical currents. The entire series is a dynamic visual representation of the company’s commitment to increase the use of electricity in individual’s homes.  

The Électricité series is one of Man Ray’s most profound works, specifically in the technique he used to create such mesmerizing and intense imagery. As previously mentioned, Man Ray coined the collection of photographs “Rayographs”, a radical invention that stressed the influence of light and shadow. Typically when developing film, photographers utilize darkrooms, blocking photos from any exposure to light. In this case, Ray places objects directly onto the photographic paper and exposes them to light- intentionally changing the composition and lighting during the development process to create abstract effects. In just over a decade after moving to Europe, Man Ray had introduced an entirely new approach into an otherwise old process and revolutionized the way people experienced photography. He had not only made it an accepted artistic medium but redefined the qualities that make up photography. A photograph was no longer just an image captured through a lens, it was now a creative and versatile means of artistic expression and abstraction. “I do not photograph nature,” he once said, “I photograph my visions.”

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Salle a Manger, 1931. Chrysler Museum of Art

Man Ray was an intensely gifted and curious artist, spreading his talents across multiple planes, including fashion and portrait photography, featuring some of the most well-known figures of the time. He also was an incredibly talented painter, sculptor, and print artist. He lived in an age where art was constantly transforming; he was involved with both the Dada and Surrealists, two avant-garde art movements who had their own distinct styles and radical ideas that left them largely misunderstood during their time. However, his powerful legacy remains in his surrealist works, as he pioneered an entirely new form of photography and evolved our interpretation of how we see and create art. Électricité is just one example of how Man Ray changed the world of photography forever. His process-oriented art-making has influenced different iterations of his work in pop culture as well as younger generations of artists, breaking the barrier of how we feel we can express ourselves through this very modern form of art.

“Accordingly, the artist’s work is to be measured by the vitality, the invention, and the definiteness and conviction of purpose within its own medium.” — Man Ray