Man Ray: The Artist and His Shadows 

Arthur Lubow

  • Review
By – November 1, 2021

Paris was at the cen­ter of artis­tic fer­ment after World War I, and it was here that Man Ray estab­lished him­self as a pre­em­i­nent prac­ti­tion­er of Dada and as a major fig­ure in the avant-garde art move­ment. In this brisk biog­ra­phy, Arthur Lubow, a jour­nal­ist and author of Diane Arbus: Por­trait of a Pho­tog­ra­ph­er, recre­ates that peri­od and Man Ray’s place in it.

Born Emmanuel Rad­nit­sky in Philadel­phia in 1890, Man Ray grew up in Brook­lyn. As soon as he was able, he left his fam­i­ly home and main­tained very lit­tle con­nec­tion with his sib­lings and par­ents, mak­ing every effort to erase his background.

As a child, Man Ray sketched and drew and in high school honed his skill in mechan­i­cal draw­ing. Join­ing a group of anar­chist thinkers and artists, Man Ray fre­quent­ed Edward Ste­ichen and Alfred Steiglitz’s influ­en­tial gallery at 291 Fifth Avenue, which showed ground­break­ing Euro­pean art. In time, he unsuc­cess­ful­ly exhib­it­ed his paint­ings at the gallery but, more impor­tant­ly, began exper­i­ment­ing with a cam­era as a way to doc­u­ment his art­work and soon to cre­ate art itself.

Drawn to Dada and its French prac­ti­tion­ers, and feel­ing New York was not a place for Dada and his work, in 1921 Man Ray sailed for Paris, where he spent most of the rest of his life except for the years of World War II and a brief after­math. With his gift for friend­ship — he main­tained rela­tion­ships with artists who were in bit­ter­ly opposed camps of the art world — he eas­i­ly found his way in Parisian art cir­cles and entered the most active peri­od of his career.

Lubow skill­ful­ly con­veys the atmos­phere of inter­war Paris and the world of Dada and Sur­re­al­ism — its wit, its absur­di­ties, its intel­lec­tu­al for­mu­la­tions, its sex­u­al and occa­sion­al­ly vio­lent under­tones. Work­ing in many medi­ums, Man Ray expressed the essence of Dada, most notably in his pho­tog­ra­phy and the artis­tic tech­niques he devel­oped. Although he wished to be known for his paint­ing, Man Ray is usu­al­ly remem­bered for his dar­ing and inno­v­a­tive photography.

Under­lin­ing the impor­tance of Man Ray’s rela­tion­ships and their influ­ence, the title of almost every chap­ter in the book is the name of some­one who left a mark on Man Ray’s work, includ­ing his mus­es — he had sev­er­al long-term rela­tion­ships and two mar­riages, one ear­ly in his life and the oth­er for the last thir­ty years of his life. His most endur­ing and sig­nif­i­cant friend­ship, with Mar­cel Duchamp, began in 1915 over a game of net­less ten­nis between the two artists, nei­ther of whom spoke the other’s lan­guage — a fit­ting sym­bol for their wit­ty and often provoca­tive art. Despite their dif­fer­ences in back­ground, they sup­port­ed one anoth­er both per­son­al­ly and artis­ti­cal­ly for their life­times, Man Ray rush­ing to Duchamp’s apart­ment with his cam­era as soon as he heard of his friend’s death to make a clas­sic deathbed photograph.

Man Ray is brief even by the stan­dards of Yale’s brief biogra­phies, a reflec­tion of Man Ray’s silence about him­self. His work speaks for him. The book is bet­ter appre­ci­at­ed if read­ers look at the works dis­cussed in the book. They open up the art world Lubow so excel­lent­ly portrays.

Maron L. Wax­man, retired edi­to­r­i­al direc­tor, spe­cial projects, at the Amer­i­can Muse­um of Nat­ur­al His­to­ry, was also an edi­to­r­i­al direc­tor at Harper­Collins and Book-of-the-Month Club.

Discussion Questions