PRINT November 1972

Man Ray as Film Maker

OF THE GROUP OF PAINTERS and poets who were members of the Dada and later Surrealist circles the one who contributed the most to the development of the cinema as a Surrealist medium was Man Ray.1 Arriving in Paris on Bastille Day of 1921 he sought to continue his activities as a painter. His paintings received relatively little attention despite the fact that he had been part of the milieu of New York Dada and despite recognition of his works by the Paris Dada circle. His initial one-man shows were commercial failures, with no sales, and he turned to photography as a temporary solution to his financial problems.

Making commercial photographs for his livelihood, he also explored the medium for its esthetic possibilities2 favoring the female nude,3 its fullness of flesh, flexibility of limbs, and the face and hands close up.4 Man Ray transformed the most familiar angles of the body into supernatural terrain: his pictures vacillate between closeups and expansive tactile fields almost conforming to geometric patterns. But while enamored of the nude he also made fun of it. In a closeup photograph of an apple he replaced the stem with a screw. The effect is similar to that of his nudes, close to the fullness of form, the geometric shape, and the texture of the object, and for this reason the visual pun succeeds.

The creation of these close-ups was determined by considerations that were both theoretical and more immediately formal. Man Ray has described how in his photography he attempted to duplicate the mental process. Since the range of the human eye is quite large, the objects in its field of vision do not stand out by themselves. It is the mind which enlarges them in the thinking process. Thus, in order to approximate that conceptual end product Man Ray took pictures of a small area which he later enlarged.’ The effect is not one of Cézannian distillation of the everyday to create an elemental abstraction; rather it is a sharpened vision which we still find jarring. The photos attempt to break through the veil that hangs to shield us from the painfully exciting confrontation with a total reality. As André Breton wrote in his essay for a book of Man Ray’s photographs,

It needed nothing less than the admirable experience which, in the vastest plastic domain, is that of Man Ray, to dare, beyond the immediate likeness—which is often only that of a day or of certain days—to aim for the profound likeness which, physically, mortally engages the entire future.6

Man Ray pursued the expression of his own surrealistic vision in certain other kinds of photographs by manipulating his material in the darkroom to achieve the desired end-product. In Demain he superimposed two pictures of a nude while distorting both to arrive at a humanoid female; in Projet pour une tapisserie he took the negative of a picture of two people and, allowing light to reach it at regular intervals, obtained the effect of white shadows featuring zebra stripes; he superimposed a self-portrait on a collection of objects so that his face seems to consist of a patterned maze. The supernatural quality of his photography emerges even in his portraits: the face is usually seen close up, the photo often solarized to make the features appear extraordinarily pale and to silhouette the head sharply against the background.7 In other photographs the features are blurred to give another kind of haunting vision.

Man Ray adhered to a rather different kind of vision in his rayographs. He discovered the process by accident, a circumstance which endeared the new medium all the more to its Dada discoverer.8 Working in his studio Man Ray accidentally mixed an unexposed sheet of photosensitive paper with exposed sheets in the developing tray. Waiting in vain for an image to appear, he placed a couple of objects on the paper and as he turned the light on, the image formed right in front of his eyes. The following day Tristan Tzara came by, took notice of the rayographs, and the two men set to work making rayographs together, each proceeding in his own manner. Tzara took a matchbox, placed the matches on the sheet, tore up the matchbox, and burned a hole in the paper. Thus, he proceeded to systematically utilize and violate the newlyfound medium simultaneously in true Dada fashion. Man Ray, on the other hand, formed cones, triangles, and wire spirals, exploring the possibilities of the new process in geometric terms. The results, in his words, were “startlingly new and mysterious.”9 He continued making rayographs, achieving a three-dimensional effect by creating abstract patterns with light values reversed in the manner of negatives and with the shadowy grays forming receding transitional zones. In December of 1922 Man Ray published 12 rayographs with a preface by Tzara in a small volume called Les Champs délicieux. The title was a take-off on the first Surrealist work published the preceding year by André Breton and Philippe Soupault and entitled Les Champs magnétiques.

As a result of his experiments with photography and of his assistance on Duchamp’s optical and cinematic projects, Man Ray became sufficiently interested in moving pictures to buy a small automatic camera.10 His initial idea was to shoot enough footage for a 10–15 minute film, to insert some meaningless captions, and then to show it to his Dada friends. He had shot only a few scenes when Tzara, the only person who knew of these plans, announced one morning the Dada program Le Coeur à Barbe which listed Man Ray as presenting a Dada film. He protested that he would not have enough film for a showing, but Tzara prevailed by suggesting the addition of rayographs to the shots he already had. And so was born the first Dada film!

Man Ray’s first film is a real mélange of artistic camera work, animated rayographs, shots of some of his created objects, and Dada pranks. Its title, Le Retour à la Raison, is as ironic as the titles given to many of his objects. Although the filmstrip was really just the result of a night’s work, so are many other creative human achievements worthy of discussion. Man Ray remembers that “my curiosity was aroused by the idea of putting into motion some of the results I had obtained in still photography.”11 Accordingly, even before he was approached by Tzara, he had shot sequences of rotating objects. Even the rayographs were cinematized; by exposing whole strips of film to particular kinds of objects Man Ray realized their animation on the screen.

While Man Ray admits that he had no idea of how the rayograph sections would appear on the screen we can credit him with the same conceptual vision he exhibited previously. His initial shot of this film, salt scattered on the strip appearing as a shimmering field, negates the representative nature of movies. His switching to a field of daisies indicates his interest in juxtaposing abstract effects with familiar elements. The camera is aimed down so that the flowers occupy the entire screen (as did the salt particles) and clearly connects the two shots. Next he explores the behavior of various objects randomly placed on the celluloid. The placement of a single thumbtack in each frame results in a mad but recognizable jumping of a particular object. A transitional strip of both thumbtack and nails is inserted before we see a shot of the flickering nails. Then, a number of geometric form and ground effects are tried, among them a black-and-white field, a spiral, strips, and circles. Some tricks are lost completely in viewing, for example, a phrase written across five frames. Man Ray could not have expected the viewer to recognize the phrase on the screen. Perhaps he just wanted to see what would happen if he did do something as uncinematic as reserving a particular image for a single frame. Or was it an inside joke, a Dada prank?

In the shots taken with the camera other concerns emerge. The revolving paper spiral, the egg crate, and the nude human torso reveal his interest in the rotation of objects. With the field of daisies, the camera describes a circle among the flowers. Rotating the camera comes so close to the object that it fills the screen. Thus, Man Ray used the same close-up method in his photography as he did in his first film. As a result the abstract nature of a particular object is highlighted, rather than the object itself. But because it takes up much of the screen the abstract form wavers between reading as form and cinematic ground.

In the process of rotation the abstract “groundform” becomes a dynamic visual experience. That Man Ray was interested in creating just this effect is obvious from the way the shots are executed. First, the egg crate is shown rotating from a string accompanied by its strong shadow on the wall. Seen together they increase the sense of rotation. Then, evolving the everyday object to a more abstract dynamic, Man Ray superimposes one strip of film upon another to produce two crates with two shadows hopelessly enmeshed. He even inserts the sequence upside down in order to further impede identification and to break through to the abstraction which is hidden in the form of the commonplace object. With the image of the turning human torso Man Ray attempts to focus on its movement by the repetition of the turn, the apparent fluidity with which the turn is accomplished, and above all, by switching from the shot itself to its negative.12 The consecutive placement of the crate and torso rotations establishes a disturbing association between the two, so much so that the audience at the first Dada showing erupted into catcalls when the crate followed the torso. In this way Man Ray plays everyday objects against the abstraction that he can evoke from them to create a film in which Dada intentions intermingle with esthetic effects—highly experimental first try.

The Dada evening at which Le Retour à la Raison was shown exploded after the filmstrip broke for the second time. Cries went up and a scuffle erupted until the police who had been stationed outside waiting for just such a disturbance intervened and emptied the theatre. The event therefore counted as a complete Dada success: the first Dada film shown succeeded in ending the evening in utter chaos.

Word went out that Man Ray had started to make movies despite his own disclaimers. In the next few years different people approached him with film projects. Dudley Murphy showed up in his studio and offered to make a movie with Man Ray’s ideas and his equipment. The project collapsed when neither was willing to bear the costs of the film. Murphy went to Fernand Léger and together they produced Ballet Mécanique. At the same time Man Ray appeared in Francis Picabia’s and Rene Clair’s joint effort Entr’acte; a true-to-life shot showed him playing chess with Marcel Duchamp on the roof of the Paris Opera. He helped Duchamp make his Anemic Cinéma, a film that studied revolving discs producing a three-dimensional effect and carrying phrases laden with alliterative puns.13 Man Ray did not, however, have the opportunity to make a film himself until a client named Arthur Wheeler, who commissioned a portrait of his wife, suggested that he would finance a film. Man Ray could not resist such an offer, so he bought the finest camera available and began work on Emak Bakia.

The movie Man Ray produced was quite different from his first overnight Dada effort. Professional camera equipment, all the time he needed, plus an invitation to stay with the Wheelers at their house near Biarritz were ideal conditions for the making of a movie. Man Ray acquired a number of accessories, including special lamps, an assortment of crystals, an electric turntable, and some deforming mirrors, yet he remembers that he “was thrilled, more with the idea of doing what I pleased than with any technical and optical effects I planned to introduce.”14 He placed at least as much emphasis on the film as a free entity as on the cinematization of certain photographic effects. He called his work a “cinépoème” as an indication that the film would be a medium of poetic expression closely linked with the latest concerns of the Surrealist movement.

The Dada circle of 1923 became the Surrealist group of 1926. Man Ray evolved with the Surrealists in a new artistic and philosophical direction. His summary of the transformation reveals his own position:

What Dada had accomplished was purely negative; its poems and paintings were illogical, irreverent, and irrelevant. To continue its propaganda a more constructive program was needed, at least as an adjunct to its criticism of society. And Breton came up with Surrealism. . . . Dada did not die; it was simply transformed, since the new movement was composed of all the original members of the Dada group.15

Although not a pivotal figure, he was closely associated with the group. He participated in the first Surrealist exposition at the Galerie Pierre in 1925 with Arp, Masson, Ernst, De Chirico, Miró, and Picasso. The following year he had a one-man show at the Galerie Surréaliste.

Man Ray certainly considered his film a Surrealist work as is evidenced by his account of the reaction after the screening:

My Surrealist friends whom I had invited to the showing were not very enthusiastic, although I thought I had complied with all the principles of Surrealism: irrationality, automatism, psychological and dreamlike sequences without apparent logic, and complete disregard of conventional storytelling. At first I thought this coolness was due to my not having discussed the project with them beforehand, as we did in the publication of magazines and in the arrangement of exhibitions. It was not sufficient to call a work Surrealist, as some outsiders had done to gain attention—one had to collaborate closely and obtain a stamp of approval—present the work under the auspices of the movement to be recognized as Surrealist. I had neglected this, been somewhat too individualistic.16

Thus, while Emak Bakia was in no way an official presentation of Surrealist principles, it was conceived as a Surrealist work by a person closely associated with the group.

Man Ray has written that “All the films I have made have been improvisations. I did not write scenarios. It was automatic cinema.”17 Yet the automatism of the shooting was given its final form by the montage. In the preparations for Emak Bakia he remembers that “When I felt I had accumulated enough material for a short film, I’d mount the sequences in some sort of progression, consider the job finished.”18 In the shooting Man Ray concerned himself with certain themes, movements, and effects which were combined by montage to articulate various episodes or sequences the assemblage of which created the final Surrealist film.

The film begins with a shot reflected in a mirror of Man Ray as cameraman rolling film. This opening is at once a personal affirmation of Man Ray as film maker, a cinematic trick showing the mechanics of the filming process, and perhaps the first presentation of the human eye as an element of Surrealist iconography. It is an ingenious Dada and Surrealist device that also introduces the author as creator. Before launching into its own abstract imagery the film continues with several abstract sequences taken from the first film. These images differ in one significant respect: while in the first film the rotations were of concrete objects, here they are of lights or objects reflecting lights. We observe indistinct lights revolving in the distance, the recognizable lights of a merry-go-round seen close-up, traveling news lights, and the rotation of a prism among mirrors in which a whole pattern of complex light reflections is set forth. Between the making of his first and second film Man Ray seems to have discovered film to be more than just moving pictures, that although film is able to animate an object it is above all a medium of light. He moved from animated photography to the filming of light.19

In the film this play with light ends for the time being with shot #14, which at this point commences a series of objective shots forming a narrative fragment. The leitmotif of the eye reappears superimposed on the headlights of a car. The coupling of human and mechanical elements resembles his previous juxtaposition of rotating egg crates and the human torso stressing the relationship of elements functionally different but similar in appearance. From here the episode quickly unfolds toward its climax, the collision in shots #20–25. The movement of the car is established by a series of shots of approaching headlights, the driver, the rear tire, a low-angle shot of the car moving, and finally a shot from the speeding car itself of the road ahead. The collision is conveyed with similar brevity and suggestive symbolism. First, the obstacle, a close-up of sheep crossing the road. Then, a shot of the approaching car taken from the ground which emphasizes the size and destructive potential of the car. Three consecutive shots symbolize the actual collision: a sleeping pig; a landscape; then the pig again, this time suddenly startled from sleep. The havoc of the collision itself is expressed by violently moving trees and blurs taken by a camera thrown in the air and caught. The episode is brought to its climax, but the objective shots continue. The running board of the car is shown in a low-angle shot as one pair of feet get out, then the same pair repeated again and again and again and again. Finally, the feet are superimposed creating a multiple image of descending feet and making a denouement to the collision sequence. Is it the ghost of the passenger? Or, merely a thematic transition from the motion-packed scenes involving the car to the following series of objective shots?

Shot #27 of a girl dancing the Charleston alternates with a man strumming a banjo and sets the rhythmic, musical dimension of the film. Man Ray made this film with the express purpose of having it accompanied by music. As he recalls, “I was not a purist concerning black and white photography. I liked the idea of a sound accompaniment. . . . ”20 For the first screening of the film at the Vieux Colombier he provided jazz records by the Django Reinhardt guitarists, and the live theater ensemble playing some tango and popular sentimental French tunes.21 It is at this point therefore that he creates an exact visual equivalent for the music which had already set the tempo and mood in the preceding segments. The close-up of the banjo and the focus on the legs of the dancer reinforces the connection between image and musical accompaniment. The unusual length of the sequence stresses its importance in resolving the contradictions between the play of abstractions at the beginning of the film and the representative fragment immediately preceding the sequence. This acts as a unifying tempo-setting interlude one-third of the way through the film, and is further woven into the fabric of the film by the visual relationship of the dancing legs to the preceding multiple pairs of legs stepping out of the car and the continuation of the action on the stairs in the background in the following shot.

Another episodic fragment, somewhat looser in structure than the collision segment, follows the pivotal music interlude. A woman walks up a flight of stairs and prepares herself in front of a mirror, then walks out to a terrace to pause and look between two columns. The camera scans the landscape, first the cliff, then the surf. In the four shots, a transition is established between the Charleston scene and the view of the ocean. A feeling of expectancy has been created by, closely observing the woman’s movements, especially her preparations in front of the mirror. The shots of her walking up the stairs and out to the porch are taken from the back, a device which, invariably, by its purposeful concealment of the face creates a sense of the unknown. The columns are shown first in shot #30 and we wait for her to walk onto the scene. The sense of expectancy created by both the technique and content of these shots seeks an emotional release in what follows. Shot #31 is only a narrative explanation of the preceding buildup: it is the view the woman has from the porch.

The following five shots, however, divert the emotional expectations of the viewer. The close-up shots of the waves can no longer be part of the woman’s scope of vision; an improvisation on the waves occurs. By breaking the straight narrative line the sense of expectancy is dispelled, and the shots that follow of the bather refer us back to the woman yet continue to explore the beach. The camera placement concentrates attention on the bright sunlight that emerges from behind her silhouetted legs as she moves them back and forth. The play with sunlight continues in the next shot, focusing on the glare on the water from an elevated position, perhaps the woman’s vantage point again. The rotation of the camera, inverting the sky and the sea, is intended to convey the feeling of underwater motion, shown in the following shot of swimming fish. This sensation is further explored through a double exposure of the fish. By ending the fragment with shots of sunlight, rotating seascape, and submarine views, the sense of expectancy is resolved in a cinematic play of nature shots. The double exposure of the fish image results in a playful action similar to shot #26 of the multiple image of legs getting out of the car. In fact, both these are the only trick shots in their respective narrative fragments. Both come at the end of the fragments to reassert the visual playfulness of the film, and to link the fragments to the visual rhythm.

A set of four shots follows this second narrative fragment: sculptures; objects; and geometric shapes observed in various arrangements and movements. They are differentiated from the shots where Man Ray plays with light because of the clarity with which their materiality is depicted. They differ from the two previous fragments by the use of nonhuman geometric forms in mostly jerky and mechanical movement. Together they interrupt the continuity and serve as a temporal lull in the middle of the film. The role of these images opposes the Charleston sequence: while the dancing legs and banjo highlight the musical tempo of the film the jerky movement of sharply defined geometric objects breaks up the musical tempo by an insistent staccato rhythm.

Nevertheless, a transition is made from the spasmodic movement of these objects to a recapitulation of abstract light forms. The still life of geometric objects comes to life in a dance, one of the most delightful animations of the entire film. In this shot (#40) circular patterns flow to the center and scatter from the table, until a trick is played with the dice, which after being cut in half unite to form one die. Traveling news lights follow announcing cryptically “Every night at Magic City.” Aside from the message, the news lights also serve to link the previous dance of objects to the following rotation of lights, for while it partakes of the former through its ordered movement, it is but a play of light. The consecutive placement of shots #40, #41, and #42–43 questions our most basic prejudices, which surface in the viewing process because the traveling news lights are nothing but movements of light particles organized in the form of moving letters. Is such an organization of lights any more sensible than the dance of objects on the table? Is it less appealing esthetically than the indistinct light rotations? Aside from the provocative nature of these shots, they mark a return to the abstract light play which began the film and recapitulate a fundamental theme.

Man Ray brings together the two dominant themes of the film by coupling suggestive shots of human presence with abstract light rotations. A sense of imminence is evoked by the slow removal of a fan to reveal a woman’s face with closed eyes. Her eyes then open and gaze directly into the camera. The image fades out as a merry-go-round of lights reappears.Through the fade-out of a rotating glass cube the woman’s face appears again with her eyes once more closed. Again she opens her eyes and this time smiles. A shot of a coral flower is followed by that of another woman sitting with closed eyes. Once more the eyes open and her mouth starts to move. She is again followed by light rotations. Such terse cutting of elements of the two major themes results in a very special effect: with the buildup of the two previous narrative fragments eliminated we are left with three different shots closely resembling one another, each in itself creating a feeling of wonder and expectancy. This sense of wonder is aroused by the specific content of these shots: all three are of the awakening of a woman whose eyes mysteriously gaze at the viewer. The mystery with which the Surrealists enshrouded woman and acclaimed feminine love is well known, and Man Ray evokes a sense of mystery by the use of a pair of awakening feminine eyes. Earlier in the film the presence of the woman in the second narrative fragment is primarily responsible for the sense of mystery and expectation, especially in the manner in which Man Ray observes her engaged in such feminine preoccupations as putting on make-up and jewelry in front of the mirror. A coral flower is inserted between two shots of women, the flower being a metaphor for feminine beauty as it is in L’Etoile de Mer. The eyes themselves are significant elements. A single eye seen through the lens opened the film, and a pair of eyes superimposed on the headlights of a car opened the first narrative fragment. Eyes used in three separate shots are especially meaningful because they are associated with the beginning of a sequence. Yet there is no narrative elaboration here as there was before. The knowing eyes themselves are the subject of the shots. That an awakening or revelation is indeed the implied aim of this segment is emphasized by the behavior which accompanies the opening of the eyes. First, a fan is withdrawn; then the woman breaks into a smile; finally she seems to say something. These gestures make her come alive. She reveals herself in a specifically feminine way, so that again it is her femininity which is the source of the mystery. Yet the dissolves which remove or reassert her face create a dreamlike mood. Is she slipping into or awakening from a dream? This cannot be determined in this sequence more than in the narrative fragment about the seashore. In both cases, however, the placement of light-plays and abstractions after shots that suggest contemplation or realization make the former images functions of the imagination.

Man Ray was now ready to finish the film “with some sort of climax, so that the spectators would not think I was being too arty. This was to be a satire on the movies.”22 He started a sequence which he entitled “La raison de cette extravagance.” “This was to reassure the spectator, like the title of my first Dada film: to let him think there would be an explanation of the previous disconnected images.”23 Accordingly Man Ray leads the audience on a wild goose chase. He unfolds a conventional plot that begins with a car driving up to a door, a man with a briefcase getting out, going inside, and opening a suitcase full of collars. The sequence ends in a typical Dada fashion with the collars torn up and thrown into a circle, then all jumping back, and finally starting a revolving dance.

In this sequence Man Ray creates the one truly Dadaist progression of the film, partly to show that he is still very much Dada in spirit (as he would be for the rest of his life) and partly to insert a truly discordant sequence which abruptly halts the rhythm of the film. The insertion of the caption itself breaks the flow of images, but Man Ray made sure that there would be no mistaking his intention: accordingly, he had the musicians stop the music at, that moment and not resume playing until the collars started rotating. The sequence resembles, at least superficially, the two previous narrative fragments in the buildup of anticipation followed by outcome or resolution, but the differences between them are those that separate Dada from Surrealism, at least as far as Man Ray is concerned.

To the extent that Dada came into existence through its violent denials of reality, that stable reality first had to be posited in a work of art before it could be destroyed. The better established and more convincing that reality, the more provoking its violation and the greater its success in Dada terms. The deliberate departure from reason is made all the more striking by the audience’s expectation of a rational progression by the introductory caption. The buildup lacks all symbolic or mystery-evoking qualities in an attempt to present as conventional a setting as possible. Nothing could be more conventional than a businessman arriving at a building with a briefcase ready to do business. The revealing of the contents of the suitcase and his ripping of the collars provokes the audience by a mocking which turns into a violation of the everyday. Significantly the protagonist is a man, for man is the worker, therefore man must be the destroyer to create the characteristic Dada contradiction. In the Surrealist sequences, on the other hand, reality in its everyday sense is not posited because the Surrealists had reached a transcendent understanding of reality. The cinematic progression evolves as a mixture of “realistic,” symbolic, trick, and mystery-evoking shots. The element of surprise that accompanied the provoking Dada endings was incorporated into the Surrealist experience so that in a number of shots the same sense of surprise is reencountered. And while the Dada sequence features man in his role of actor-violator, the Surrealist segments present woman as celebrated by the Surrealist poets for her evocative feminine presence.

The final moment of the Dada sequence shows the businessman throwing down his straw hat and ripping off his own collar, a gesture which is the ultimate Dada act for Man Ray because it is the removal of a disguise, a violation which sets man free. Once the disguise is thrown off the free dance of objects is resumed to the joyful accompaniment of “The Merry Widow Waltz” as at the first showing. After the Dada joke is perpetrated the play of imagination can recommence. It is important to note, however, that the Dada sequence is not an isolated one; it is immediately preceded by the three awakenings that prepare the viewer for a revelation, and it is followed by the fluid rotation of a collar the violent ripping of which was the very point of the sequence. The strong impact of this segment emanates, in part, from its thorough integration into the thematic and imagistic flow of the film.

The captioned sequence is the first climax of the film that evaporates once the dance of abstraction resumes. These abstractions grow increasingly complex from #60 onward as they evolve from a rotating collar to plays of light. In shot #67 we once again see a woman’s face with eyes painted on her eyelids. She sits up, opens her eyes, and smiles. Then she closes her eyes and lies down again, while the same shot of her is superimposed upside down. The final shot is of the superimposed face rotating on the screen.

We observe here the kind of double ending that brought René Clair’s Entr’acte to a close. Once “Fin” appeared on a large sheet of paper, a character jumped through it only to be pulled back by someone else. The first ending which purports to give reason to the whole film ironically leads to a resumption of those rotations which it had sought to explain. Finally one of the recurring objective images, that of the mystery evoking woman, reappears for the last time. The previous shots of suggestive female awakenings are now completely mocked by her double awakening. A Dada trick is perpetrated on a Surrealistic motif. Yet when she closes her eyes to return to sleep and her face is duplicated and rotated on the screen, an element of wonder returns. The double ending, which features provocative elements and which in itself is a provocative device, is so well woven into the cinematic fabric that we witness the inextricable fusion of Dada and Surrealist intentions.

In Emak Bakia we observe Man Ray’s first and fullest cinematic statement. His very first essay with film, Le Retour à la Raison, exhibited few of his concerns. His following film, L’Etoile de Mer, although a free rendering of a Desnos poem, is still the adaptation of someone else’s work from one medium to another. As such, it is a cinematic version of a Surrealist poem. Le Mystère du Chateau du Dés, his last completed work until the 1940s, is again too much tied to the commission from which it sprang—a movie of a party at the chateau of the Vicomte de Noailles. That these other films are also highly successful artistic efforts is to Man Ray’s credit, but in no other work does he come close to the freshness, versatility, and pure visual poetry of Emak Bakia. This is the one that stands at the junction of Dada and Surrealism. It brings together both movements on top of the underlying abstract current in a harmonious film.

What are Man Ray’s singular accomplishments in Emak Bakia? For one, the establishment of a visual rhythm that creates a smooth transition from one shot to another. Consecutive shots are linked either imagistically or thematically to create the flow. Visual rhythm is accompanied by an audial rhythm which Man Ray sought to create by accompanying music and which finds its visual correspondent most specifically in the Charleston banjo shot. The rhythmic tempo is further echoed by the segments into which the movie is indistinctly divided. Furthermore, the exploration of rotating light forms in itself is a study of rhythmic movement.

The film also offers some of the first truly Surrealistic cinematic elements. The short narrative fragments in which a sense of anticipation is built up to an unexpected resolution exemplify the new primacy of emotion-evoking over the forging of the narrative. That is why they are short fragments: they aim to evoke a response without building a clear-cut story. In order to elicit such emotions various techniques are used to shock the viewer into a new awareness. The opening shot of the camera filming itself is such a device, as is the collision in which the moving car, herd of sheep, starting pig, and thrown camera give a multidimensional sense of a collision. The comparison of two functionally different, but apparently similar objects, such as the eyes and headlights, also offers a new way of perceiving both these objects in terms of each other. In a sense, too, the rotating light forms create a new visual reality for the viewer. We find certain specific Surrealistic themes and images in the film, such as the haunting eye and the mysterious woman. The awakening process, a fundamental concern of the Surrealists who tried to abolish the barrier between the dreaming and waking states is treated. And in a wider sense, the entire film is a function of a liberated imagination playing with the intermingling of objective and nonobjective shots and sequences. As Man Ray summed up in his introduction to the movie at the Vieux Colombier, “what I offered to the public was final, the result of a way of thinking as well as of seeing.”24

Steven Kovács



1. For the details concerning Man Ray’s work with film I have relied most on his autobiography, Man Ray, Self-Portrait, Boston/London, 1963, especially the chapter entitled “Dada Films and Surrealism.”

2. Man Ray was not a total stranger to photography when he came to Paris. In his Dada days in New York he had come into contact with the photographers Steichen and Stieglitz. It was then that he bought his first camera, a 4'' x 6'', to reproduce his works and experiment with photography. In 1916 he developed the “cliché-verre” process on his own, although it had been known to the Barbizon artists. The process consisted of drawing on a blackened plate of glass, which was placed on top of photosensitive paper and then exposed to light, resulting in black lines where the whites of the plate had been. Man Ray’s varied photographic experiments in Paris, did not however, include “clichés-verre.”

3. Man Ray’s approach to erotic subject matter was always one of defiant directness. He is fond of recalling that as a student in New York he went from studio to studio until he found one where the model was a female nude. Once there he spent only the minimum of time drawing and the rest simply watching. See Pierre Bourgeade, Bonsoir Man Ray, Paris, 1972, pp. 10, 19. He has said, “Speaking of nudes, I have always been partial to this subject; at once in my painting and in my photography, and I must admit that this was not always for purely artistic reasons.” Trans. from Jean Adhemar and Julien Cain, Man Ray, L’Exposition de l’oeuvre photographique à la Bibliothèque Nationale, Paris, 1962, p. 11.

4. Man Ray himself recognized the value of these photographs: “Some of the most effective photographs in black and white I had made were magnifications of a detail of the face and body,” Self-Portrait, p. 254.

5. “I think that the truth lies in likening the lens to the human eye. Now . . . the eye, lens and dark room, sees little, and it is the brain which enlarges the image, which is transmitted by the retina. Therefore I think that I must always photograph very small and then enlarge, expecting that way to draw near to the vision of the human eye. . . .” Trans. from Adhemar, p. 14.

6. André Breton, “Les visages de la femme,” ed. James Thrall Soby, Man Ray/Photographies/1920–1934, Paris/New York, 1934.

7. That Man Ray was interested in achieving a particular kind of effect through his solarized photographs rather than in playing with a new kind of technique is made clear in his autobiography: “[Solarization] is a developing process thanks to which the contours of the face are accentuated by black lines, as in a sketch. This process is purely photographic, although I have been accused of having retouched and altered the negatives. . . . Every time that I deviated from conventional methods, it was simply because the subject demanded a new treatment. I applied or invented techniques in order to underline certain characteristics which seemed important to me. Only superficial critics could accuse me of trickery,” Self-Portrait, p. 203.

8. Man Ray’s close friend and fellow artist Hans Richter has illuminated Man Ray’s discovery of the rayograph in the following way: “That he discovered it seemed accidental. But then everything is. It is accidental that Man Ray is an inventor. He just cannot help to discover and reveal things because his whole person is involved in a process of continuous probing, of a natural distrust in things ’being so.’” Hans Richter, “Private notes for and on Man Ray,” Man Ray Retrospective of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Los Angeles, 1966, p. 40.

9. Self-Portrait, p. 129.

10. Just as Man Ray had had some experience with photography before coming to Paris, so too he was not a total stranger to films. While assisting Duchamp in New York in the creation of a film that was to reproduce a three-dimensional effect through stereoscopic filming and viewing, he shot a sequence of himself shaving the pubic hairs of a nude model. All of the film was ruined in the developing process due to the makeshift facilities the two had fabricated. Ibid., p. 263.

11. Ibid., p. 259.

12. If the tack sequence was a cinematization of the rayographs, the turning nude torso is in a real sense the cinematization of his photographs of nudes.

13. The phrase that was a real tour de force was “Rrose Sélavy et moi esquivons les ecchymoses des esquimaux aux mots exquis.”

14. Ibid., p. 269.

15. Ibid., p. 263.

16. Ibid., p. 274.

17. Trans. from “Surrealisme et cinema,” Etudes cinématographiques, Nos. 38–39, Paris, 1965, p. 43.

18. Self-Portrait, p. 269.

19. Man Ray’s concern with light in film recalls Philippe Soupault’s comment on the role of light in Man Ray’s pictures, “Light resembles Man Ray’s painting like a hat resembles a swallow, a coffee cup, a lace merchant, a letter the post.” Translated from Man Ray à La Librairie Six, Paris, 1921.

20. Self-Portrait, p. 272.

21. If he had had his way Man Ray might have eliminated the tangos and popular tunes altogether. In his autobiography he notes that the jazz pieces “were beyond the house musicians’ repertory.” Ibid., p. 273. Most likely their performance was included merely for the sake of having live accompaniment at some point. Man Ray has specified elsewhere that for Emak Bakia “any collection of old jazz will do.” See P. Velguth, “Notes on the musical accompaniment to the silent films,” ed. Frank Stauffacher, Art in Cinema, San Francisco, 1947, pp. 91–5. Evidently the desired musical accompaniment was jazz, all the way until the collar sequence when the silence followed by the “Merry Widow Waltz” played a crucial role.

22. Self-Portrait, p. 270.

23. Ibid., p. 272.

24. Ibid., p. 273.