From the Darkroom

From the Darkroom: Rayographs

American painter and photographer Man Ray (born Emmanuel Radnitzky), moved from New York to Paris in 1921 to join a group of like-minded artists and writers such as Marcel Duchamp and Tristan Tzara. Known as Dadaists, this creative community was originally formed in Zurich during the First World War as a reaction to the horrors and futility of war. Their art, poetry and performance were often satirical and nonsensical in nature. (Tate 2023)

The Gift

Man Ray created Le Cadeau [The Gift] for his first exhibition in Paris. This flatiron with tacks glued to the undersurface re-imagines a quotidian object in an unusable, abstract, even violent way that was a magnificent entry point with the Dadaism movement.

He supported his artwork with portrait photography, getting commissions from fellow artists such as Picasso, Braque, Matisse and Cocteau. One night in late 1921, while working in the small darkroom set up in his apartment bathroom, he began experimenting with objects placed on light-sensitive paper. By exposing the paper to light, he could create silhouettes of the objects.

I have freed myself from the sticky medium of paint and am working directly with light itself.

Man Ray 1922

Although it was a technique that had been established in the early years of photography in the 1830s, Man Ray claimed credit for its rediscovery and named these rayographs: unique artistic products of everyday objects expressed in abstract, ambiguous ways. He wrote to Ferdinand Howald, who helped finance his travel to France, to say: “I have freed myself from the sticky medium of paint and am working directly with light itself.”

Delicious fields

Les Champs Délicieux (album w/12 works & preface by Tristan Tzara. Photographs by Man Ray (1922)

Man Ray produced a portfolio of twelve rayographs in 1922 titled Champs délicieux [Delicious fields]. It was introduced with the words of the Dadaist poet Tristan Tzara and published in Vanity Fair in November 1922.

The Kiss

Rayograph (The Kiss). © Man Ray (1922)

Man Ray created the surreal rayograph The Kiss in 1922, which may feature Man Ray with his model, Alice Prin (aka Kiki de Montparnasse), who was later featured with violin f-holes stencilled on her back in his surreal portrait Le violon d’Ingres (1924).

The paper was exposed at least three times.

MoMA explains how the paper was exposed to light at least three times, becoming darker in those places where it was not masked. “Each time, a different set of objects acted as a stencil: a pair of hands, a pair of heads kissing, and two darkroom trays, which seem almost to kiss each other with their corner spouts.”

Making a Rayograph

Cheese Grater and Scissors. © J. Ashley Nixon

I made the rayograph Cheese Grater and Scissors in the SAIT darkroom (2023-01-26). Ilford Multigrade Delux paper was exposed for ten seconds, then developed, fixed, washed, and dried. Like all rayographs, it is a unique product. This one is particularly special: the first darkroom print I have produced in over four decades.

SAIT Black & White Darkroom Techniques

In future articles, I will share some of my experiences, techniques I have learned (or relearned) and a selection of the images I make as I continue with the B&W Darkroom Techniques course, run by George Webber at SAIT (Southern Alberta Institute of Technology).

Recommended reading

Man Ray (2012). Text by Katherine Ware, Edited by Manfred Heiting. Taschen, Germany.

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