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The Art of Seeing  #07: Man Ray's Surrealistic Photography

Suzan Sontag

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Surrealism in Art is a movement that began in the early 20s and was followed by many artists who were looking for new ways of expression. As in most cultural movements it did not emerge in an instant but at that time it found its definition and it was soon embraced by painters, photographers, poets, writers and other artists. In fact, in 1924, writer André Breton released an analytic text entitled as ‘First Manifesto of Surrealism’ where he defined surrealism as

“Psychic automatism in its pure state, by which one proposes to express--verbally, by means of the written word, or in any other manner--the actual functioning of thought. Dictated by the thought, in the absence of any control exercised by reason, exempt from any aesthetic or moral concern”

In the above generic definition we can probably identify an underlying coexistence of dream and reality which according to Breton could be deducted through artworks into:

“…a kind of absolute reality, a surreality, if one may so speak...”

It is clear that the absence of control, the defiance of reason, the overriding of rules and conventions, the salience of instinctive and raw thought, the contradictions in what we are used to assume as normal or real, provide a new space where norms, values, ethics or even words, obtain new meanings and can be redefined under an unprecedented sense of freedom.

Max Ernst, At the Rendezvous of Friends, 1922 - Museum Ludwig, Cologne

Featuring prominent surrealists of the 20s: Rene Crevel, Max Ernst, Dostoyevsky, Theodore Fraenkel, Jean Paulhan, Benjamin Peret, Johannes T. Baargeld, Robert Desnos, Philippe Soupault, Jean Arp, Max Morise, Raphael, Paul Eluard, Louis Aragon, Andre Breton, Giorgio de Chirico and Gala Eluard.

But, what about the case of photography? How can photography escape its mimetic function? How can it overcome its representational features and defy reality? Well, the best way to respond to such a question is to look carefully into the work of photographers whose work can be considered more or less surrealistic. Many of the photographs created by Man Ray would be a good example of how photography can transform and even surpass reality and constitute a kind of surreality such as the one defined by Breton. In a time where photography was established as an art of depicting an accurate and detailed reality, Man Ray proposed irrational and illogical forms and aesthetics, unexpected juxtapositions and the element of surprise through his images. As Ware and De L'Ecotais (2004) suggest about Man Ray:

“…Erotic, playful, and sometimes sinister, his compositions show unusual bodies and objects: strange, striking images that transform our perceptions of reality.”

Man Ray (Emmanuel Radnitzky, 1890-1976) believed in the possibilities of chance and randomness and he loved the uncanny things of life seen under a dreamy and unconscious perspective that gave free reign to his imagination. The technics he incorporated include among others, multiple exposure, extreme cropping of contacts, use of the photogram (a discovery of his own which he called ‘Rayography’), solarisation (whole or partial reverse of tone) etc. With respect to extreme cropping, Emmanuelle de l'Ecotals proposed that by shooting his subjects from a distance and then cropping them, Man Ray creates a gap between reality and its images. Nevertheless, by manipulating his images in an extreme way, Man Ray attempted to make apparent that they were artifacts or constructs - which is a main concept in the philosophy of surrealism.

Solarised Portrait of Lee Miller, c.1929 by Man Ray - The Penrose Collection

But let us see some of his photographs that are considered to belong to the sphere of surrealism. In order to deepen into the spirit of surrealism and to reflect upon Man Ray’s photographs we cite certain interesting comments which may give us some insight on his work.

Le Violon d'Ingres (Ingres's Violin), 1924 - The J. Paul Getty Museum

“…Inspired by Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres's ‘La Grande Baigneuse’, Ray used Kiki de Montparnasse wearing a turban as a model for this piece. He transformed the female body into a musical instrument by painting sound-holes on her back, playing with the idea of objectification of an animate body. Throughout his career Man Ray was fascinated with juxtaposing an object with a female body…” (

Man Ray

Black and White (Noire et Blanche), 1926 - Man Ray Trust/ADAGP

"This photograph of Kiki de Montparnasse's head next to an African ceremonial mask bears a title that references both the black and white process of photography as well as skin color. It was created at a time when African art and culture was much in vogue. The oval faces of the two almost look identical in their serene expressions, but he contrasts her soft pale face with the shiny black mask. He simplifies the conflict of society into a problem of lighting and imagery in aesthetics - one oval next to another oval; one laying on its side contrasted with another that is erect; one lit from above and the other from the side." (

Larmes (Tears), 1930-1932 - Man Ray Trust/ADAGP

Judging from his inclusion of this image in other photographic compositions, Man Ray must have considered Tears one of his most successful photographs… …Like the emotive expression of a silent screen star in a film still, the woman's plaintive upward glance and mascara-encrusted lashes seem intended to invoke wonder at the cause of her distress. The face, however, belongs not to a real woman but to a fashion mannequin who cries tears of glistening, round glass beads; the effect is to aestheticize the sentiment her tears would normally express…” (The J. Paul Getty Museum)

Man Ray

Marquise Casati, 1922 - Man Ray Trust/ADAGP

“…Man Ray’s 1922 photograph, ‘Marquise Casati’, aimed to present the world as symbol for our interpretation, which in turn revealed our unconscious thought. This photograph is best analyzed in terms of its effect on the viewer, although it can also be analyzed as an expression of Man Ray’s unconscious thought. The image is a woman staring straight into the camera. Her image is double-exposed; the result is a blurred, dreamy doubled-vision of her. Man Ray makes a Surrealist statement in his choice of both subject and method. As Rosalind Krauss suggests, his continual return to the female body as a subject supported Breton’s desire to join unconscious desire with reality. The subject’s penetrating yet seductive stare is enlarged by the double set of eyes. By photographing the woman head-on, Man Ray forces us to acknowledge her as well as ourselves and our unconscious desires, whatever they may be. The image also serves as a jarring two-way mirror where both subject and viewer reflect one another. Within Man Ray’s frame, we find a double arrow pointing back into ourselves, indicating the real subject is within. The photograph stands as a sign for ourselves. As in a dream, by decoding the image, we decode ourselves…” (Steahle, 2011)

The Primacy of Matter over Thought, 1929 - Man Ray Trust/ADAGP

"...’The Primacy of Matter over Thought’, above, displays a nude (Kiki de Montparnasse) lying on what seems to be a bare floor. Her body appears very white in contrast to the surroundings. With the help of a technique called solarisation her body according to Montagu seems to "float above the background". However, the indefinable mass which loosens the edges of her body can also be described as a certain kind of dissolving into nonentity. In any case, the picture evokes a feeling of uncertainty and instability concerning our perception of reality. It could be taken out of a dream. Certainly this dream would be rather a male than a female dream, dealing with sexual desires and the male gaze at the female body as an object rather than a personality.” (

Minotaur, 1933 – Man Ray Trust/ADAGP

Man Ray’s Minotaur is actually made up of the torso of a nude woman’s body. Her body is creating the head of a monster with the thoracic cavity creating a bull’s face, two breasts instead of eyes and two arms as powerful horns. As Foster (2001) suggests on works like this:

“…Soon enough these headless bodies and body-less heads were subsumed under the rubric of the Minotaur, the bull-man of Greek mythology whom the surrealists adapted as a totemic figure of the surrealist subject lost in the labyrinth of his own desire… But often this man-as-animal is evoked through the woman-as-phallus; in the most famous incarnation of the surrealist Minopaur, a 1933 photograph of Man Ray, the head of the bull is figured by the torso of a woman…”

We cited above certain comments referring to the work of Man Ray as a surrealist photographer. Although, most of them are well written and they deepen into the meaning of the artist's work, we can't help but notice that they attempt to explain rationally the image in front of us. But, is this the proper way we should stand in front of a surrealist image? If we are to feel the surrealist idea, shouldn't we express in terms of an irrational and impulsive way just like Breton declared in 1924? Holding this question for further thought, we conclude our short journey in Man Ray’s surrealistic photography with a remark from Streahle (2011) who notices that just as automatic writing brings out thought, Man Ray’s photography provide access to our unconscious and change our experience of the normal as his photographs:

“…cut out the world to get at an altered space between reality and dreams.”


  • Comments and descriptions of Man Ray’s work retrieved from

  • B. W. (Mar 4th 2013). “Man Ray's portraits: A singular surrealist».

  • Streahle, Deborah A.Z. (2011). "Visual Surrealism: A History and Analysis of the Surrealist Image". Volume 19 - 2011. Paper 11.

  • Ware, K., De L'Ecotais E. (2004). Man Ray. Edited by Manfred Heiting

  • Foster, Hal. (2001). ‘Violation and Veiling in Surrealist Photography: Woman as Fetish, as Shattered Object, as Phallus’. In Jennifer Mundy (ed.), Surrealism: Desire Unbound. Princeton University Press, p.203

  • Breton, A. (1924). First Manifesto of Surrealism


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