Man Ray's Surrealist Photography within the Realist Approach

Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

Within the realist approach, Man Ray's surrealist photography should be studied to learn about abstract photography. In this lesson, dive into Man Ray's life, surrealist vs. realist photography, and Man Ray's surrealist photographs. Updated: 11/05/2021

Man Ray

Photography is pretty basic, right? I mean, you hold out your phone and boom - selfie. Not that hard. Since it was invented, photography has been applauded for its ability to perfectly capture the natural world. That's what photography does; it creates an image that represents reality in the most accurate way possible. Right? Well, some people realized that photography could be used for something more, perhaps even something abstract. What? Crazy talk! Well, this guy didn't think so.

Man Ray

This is Emmanuel Radnitzky, more commonly known as Man Ray. Man Ray was an American artist of the 20th century who worked in newly emerging abstract styles of art, and this passion for the abstract extended into photography. Abstract photography - what's that even mean? Well, let's find out.

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  • 0:01 Man Ray
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Surrealist vs. Realist Photography

Before we get into abstract photography, let's take a look at how other people were using this art form. This is Jacob Riis, one of the founders of modern-day photojournalism. At the end of the 19th century, he used photography to document the poverty and hazardous conditions of life in the slums of New York. These are emotional and dramatic, but rely on that belief that the camera is completely objective; what it captures is simply real. No tricks, just the truth.

Portrait of Jacob Riis and one of his photos

Now, in this age of digital manipulation, we know that this is not necessarily true, but that's what people often thought of photography in the early 20th century. Riis' photographs illustrate the Realist approach, capturing a single moment of reality, frozen in time. It's not exaggerated, it's not grand or necessarily pretty; it's just reality.

So, while the rest of the world expected photography to present absolute truth, Man Ray looked at photography and saw this. That's his portrait of Jacqueline Goddard from 1930. Realism probably isn't the first word you'd use to describe that.

Portrait of Jacqueline Goddard by Man Ray

Man Ray's photography is often associated with the 20th-century style of Surrealism, an artistic movement that focused on dreams, the psyche, and creativity within the unconscious mind. Surrealist art is free, bold, and often unsettling, exploring the imagination and dreams as well as nightmares and insanity. With surrealist photography, Man Ray used a medium that most people saw as reflecting the truth of the physical world to capture subconscious dreams.

Man Ray's Surrealist Photographs

So, how exactly did Man Ray make surrealist photographs? Well, one way, like in that ghostly image of the woman, is by manipulating the film. In that case, it was by using the negative image; but here's another example, which over-emphasizes lines beyond their natural appearance.

The surrealism effect can be created by over-exaggerating the lines of a subject.
Man Ray photograph

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