It’s something of a minor miracle that all four of Man Ray’s short films are easily accessible online, and in reasonably good quality. Very few visual artists have applied the language of art to filmmaking so directly, and Man Ray was one of the first to do so. Utilizing the alternative photographic processes that he pioneered, he helped lay the foundation for avant-garde filmmaking.
As was the case with a number of early photographers, Man Ray (born Emmanuel Radnitzky) initially pursued a career as a painter. Born in South Philly and raised in Brooklyn, he expatriated to France, immersed himself in the art scene there, and launched his career.
In 1915, he learned the basics of photography in order to make reproductions of his artwork. The new medium and its seemingly limitless potential quickly captivated him. As Kim Knowles writes in A Cinematic Artist: The Films of Man Ray, “A fascination with the technological basis of photography and a desire to explore, master and push the boundaries of the medium led to him becoming one of the most innovative photographers of the twentieth century.” As Man Ray himself stated, “I have finally freed myself from the sticky medium of paint, and am working directly with light itself.”
That desire for freedom, and the urge to transcend artistic constraints and limitations, informs both his photography and his filmmaking. In a 1927 essay, the influential Surrealist poet and intellectual André Breton wrote that Man Ray guided photography “towards other ends than those for which it appears to have been created”—high praise indeed.
Similarly, Man Ray saw film as a unique art form with unrealized potential needlessly tethered to theatrical and literary conventions. He worked to detach cinema from narrative much in the same way that he strove to separate photography from straightforward representation.
He learned the craft of filmmaking by assisting Marchel Duchamp during the making of Anemic Cinema, a short avant garde exercise in Dada and Surrealism. For that experimental film, Duchamp constructed a machine with rotating panels that created a smooth, three-dimensional animated effect—a work of art for a mechanical era.
In contrast, Man Ray’s first independent effort, entitled Le Retour à la raison (1923), is chaotic and aggressive, with abrasive textures and syncopated rhythms. In place of Anemic Cinema’s carefully constructed, smoothly executed visual effects, Le Retour features crude stop-motion animation and spontaneously-composed visual cacophony. It was hastily assembled on a short 24-hour deadline. Nevertheless, however improbably, it transcends its limitations to become a significant Dadaist piece.
The three minute long cinematic sketch is largely comprised of camera-less photographic techniques, such as photograms (which he termed, tongue-in-cheek, Rayographs). It’s quite possibly the earliest example of camera-less filmmaking. To watch Le Retour a la raison is to witness the explosive and, frankly, painful birth of a filmmaker—and a filmmaking vision that will begin to mature in subsequent films.
Emak-Bakia (1926), Man Ray’s second film, expands on the achievements in his first film—and repurposes some of the footage as well. The 16-minute piece also utilizes techniques found in his still photography (photograms, double exposures, negative images, etc.) but it’s constructed more purposefully and with greater attention to detail.
Photography, painting, sculpture, and more come together to create a powerful, iconoclastic filmmaking vision that showcases imagery and movement. The stop motion is more controlled and effective this time around. Everyday items and ephemera are imbued with oblique and arcane symbolism, Duchamp-esque wordplay appears here and there, and Surrealist touches are prevalent throughout.
In Emak-Bakia, Man Ray utilizes basic editing and cinematography techniques—the language of narrative film—to create a non-narrative visual poem. It’s a textbook representation of “pure cinema,” yet it’s also very much a formative work. While groundbreakingly original, it’s punctuated nevertheless by instances of dilettantism here and there, including a fascination with water reflections that could make even a Beginning Photography student blush.
Man Ray’s filmmaking process during the making of Emak-Bakia differed only slightly from his artistic process in general. He worked alone, for the most part, except when there were people in front of the camera. And he improvised as he went without the benefit of any type of script or outline, opening the door for spontaneity and chance in his process—essential qualities for Dadaists and Surrealists. However, this approach would change with his next film, a collaborative effort with one of the great, overlooked Surrealist poets.
To be continued…
Le Retour à la raison (1923), Emak-Bakia (1926), L’etoile de Mer (1928), Les Mysteres du Chateau du De (1929).