Of all the American artists living in Paris in the 1920s and ’30s, Man Ray was the most technically innovative and artistically productive. He is universally acknowledged as one of the most influential photographers of the twentieth century. This remarkably seductive album of photogravures is an exquisite example of his legacy as America’s greatest Surrealist photographer. Commissioned in 1931 for the La Campagnie Parisiene de Distribution d’Électricité, the company that supplied the whole of Paris with electricity, Électricité consists of ten photogravures depicting the subject of electricity and its use in modern daily life. At the time, most homes in France relied on natural gas, wood, or coal for lighting, cooking, and heating. Man Ray used electrical appliances (light bulbs, a toaster, an iron, a fan) and electric light to cast the objects’ shadows on photographic paper. Then he added wavy trails of power cords and heating coils symbolic traces of the unseen effect of electric current. He also included in five images his own photographs (female nudes) and other pictures he may have appropriated (a roasted chicken, nighttime signage, the moon). In Électricité, Man Ray demonstrated how electricity (essentially an invisible force) could be a subject and also a modern medium and how it might effectively make a tasty dinner meal, cool the kitchen, eroticize the body, and thus contribute to the quality of life for working-class Parisians.
A key work in early modernist photography, it combines the artistic possibilities of autonomous photography with the practical application of advertising. Using photogram and double printing techniques, Man Ray portrays the subject with unconventional playfulness and inventivity. Électricité was way ahead of its time and forms an unparalleled high point in both photogravure and the photography of the 1930s.
In this multiple exposure print of neon advertising signs, which he allegedly photographed while traveling through central Paris in a taxi, Man Ray captured the speed and vitality of the modern city. The Eiffel Tower at night, illuminated by Fernand Jacopozzi’s fanciful lighting design, explodes with an overlay of neon advertisements in the dynamic, multiple-exposure print. Fragments of words float through the photograph like snatches of overheard conversations.
Rooseboom, Hans. Électricité: Ten Advertising Photographs by Man Ray. Rijksmuseum: Baker & McKenzie, NL 2020