Man Ray is described by many as the re-inventor of the photogram. Working in the New Vision period of the 1920s, his work was often abstract, following Dada ideas of alternative image making above standard painting. By this time, both good quality paper was available and darkroom techniques developed so that the making of good quality, high contrast images was far easier.
Through his many images, there are such combinations and differences that it is hard to write about all his images together. His Rayographs were often made of everyday objects, but by his clever understanding of the effects of light through these objects he is able to create images of amazing technical standards and also of aesthetic value.
He was a master of the formal elements that make up images, even self-importantly naming his photograms after himself – as ‘Rayographs’. Ray always used tonal differences to his advantage, choosing shapes that would be effective in silhouette and creating such a positive, strong line in so much of his work.
‘Rayograph 1926’, Gelatin Silver Print, 1926
This image was made in 1926, later into Man Ray’s time working with photograms, and as such it is a very cleverly achieved piece. The tones encompass such a range, that, along with the line from the spiral to the centre, it has created a powerful sense of depth. The solid object in the centre gives a focal point, which the curves lead round the image towards. His composition here is very deliberate, with carefully chosen objects and positioning to create artistic effect. The image is ultimately abstract and the actual contents of the frame are unknown, but their effect and interaction with the light is very impressive.
‘Rayograph 1922’, Gelatin Silver Print, 1922
The complexity of this photogram is evident from the number of layers and tones. Man Ray used a series of exposures, to form this famous piece. Visible layers include the hands, heads and trays, which make the work far less abstract than many of his others. The shapes are easily seen with no clear line for the eye but an artistic look at the strength of forms even when layered on top.
‘Rayograph 1921’ Gelatin Silver Print, 1921
‘Rayograph 1922’ Gelatin Silver Print, 1922
These images display Man Ray’s eye for composition. Both have less of a tonal range that the others, giving a more contrasting and graphic effect. The image to the left has strength in its form, with various lines for the eye, including the circular centre, and then outer circles around it. The apparent lack of composition here makes the piece seem almost unintentional, but through Ray’s abstract placement of objects on his paper and the content of the frame he creates an appealing piece. In the right image, again a simple composition lends itself well to the centrally focussed photogram. The film on the right can be forgotten by the eye, but it is another example of Man Ray using his skill to create a more fulfilling and different image. The pattern of the same image repeated also forms a pattern stretching down the work.