Man Ray’s Electricité

“This remarkably seductive album of photogravures is an exquisite example of Man Ray’s legacy as America's greatest Surrealist photographer” — Jeff L. Rosenheim, Curator in Charge, Department of Photographs, The Met

Man Ray, born Emmanuel Radnitsky, is considered one of the twentieth century’s most influential artists. Most of his important work was done while living in Paris in the 1920s and 30s where he was influenced by his associations with Marcel Duchamp, Dadasim, Cubism, and Surrealism. He made photographs, films, paintings and found-object sculptures with interchangeable fluency and innovative skill. Within photography, his series of rayograms distinguished him as one of the medium’s unique, iconoclastic talents.

Published in 1931, the Électricité Portfolio is a prime example of Ray’s experimental style of photography that flourished between the two world wars. It was commissioned by a French electric company (La Campagnie Parisiene de Distribution d’Électricité) in an edition of 500 to promote the use of electricity to their best customers. The Portfolio consists of 10 rayograms all related to uses of electricity and a text by Pierre Bost.

“Man Ray strives to make the invisible visible, electricity, creating her visual equivalents: solarization, montage, photogram, to suggest the dynamism of a hidden energy.”

At the time, most homes in France relied on natural gas, wood, or coal for lighting, cooking, and heating. 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 included his own photographs (female nudes) and other pictures probably appropriated (a roasted chicken, nighttime signage, the moon).

Photogravure brings to Électricité an exclamation point, emphasizing the darkness from which the company’s current emanates. A thick layer of lush carbon soot, matt and velvety, sucks up all the light on the surface of the print, leaving deep blacks that accentuate the bright glow of CPDE’s Électricité.

Designed as a promotion, the book was not put on the market, but sent to employees, customers and various personalities involved in the activity of the Company. Quickly recognized as a major work, the portfolio was shown in the International Photographers exhibition organized by the Brooklyn Museum of Art in 1932 and the prestigious Julien Levy Gallery in New York in 1933.

We are happy to have 7 of the 10 photogravures from this landmark project in the collection.

References

Rosenheim, Jeff L. “Électricité by Man Ray 1931.” Électricité | MetCollects | The Metropolitan Museum of Art, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2014, www.metmuseum.org/art/online-features/metcollects/man-ray-electricite.

Parr, Martin, and Gerry Badger. The Photobook: A History II. London: Phaidon, 2006. Print. 182-183

Schwarz, Arturo, and Ray Man. Man Ray: The Rigour of Imagination. New York: Rizzoli, 1977. Print. p. 267, 353

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