Man Ray, ‘Space Writing (Self-Portrait)’, 1935, Bowdoin College Museum of Art

Man Ray drew with a penlight in space and captured a tangled skein of lines by lengthening his film’s exposure time. The camera fixates an ephemeral gesture, thus hinting at the unseen reality art might disclose. While the photograph leaves the artist’s face obscure, the portrait reveals its maker’s presence through writing. Man Ray’s signature appears backwards, as if to emphasize the challenge of understanding what we see. The print bespeaks the artist’s adventurous approach to photography, a word that literally means “light writing.” Punning on the term’s etymology, the artist playfully yet deliberately “photo-graphs” himself, allowing his face and body to disappear behind the name that would survive him.

Image rights: Bowdoin College Museum of Art, Brunswick, Maine

Bowdoin College Museum of Art, Brunswick, Maine, Bowdoin College Museum of Art Purchase, Lloyd O. and Marjorie Strong Coulter Fund

About Man Ray

Born Emmanuel Radnitzky, Man Ray adopted his pseudonym in 1909 and would become one of the key figures of Dada and Surrealism. One of the few American artists associated with these movements, Ray was exposed to European avant-garde artists like Pablo Picasso and Georges Braque at Alfred Stieglitz’s New York gallery and at the 1913 Armory Show. Ray’s photographic works are considered his most profound achievement, particularly his portraits, fashion photographs, and technical experiments with the medium, such as solarization and rayographs (an eponym for his photograms), which were celebrated by the Surrealists. “I do not photograph nature,” he once said. “I photograph my visions.” In 1915 he was introduced to Marcel Duchamp, who would become a lifelong friend and influence; he subsequently moved to Paris, practicing there for over 20 years.

American, 1890-1976, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania