Dissertation/Thesis Abstract

From fine art to fashion: Man Ray's ambivalent avant-garde
by Sundell, Margaret, Ph.D., Columbia University, 2009, 240; 3373721
Abstract (Summary)

This dissertation presents a close reading of Man Ray's experimental photography: the rayograph, solarization, and, via its deployment in Violon d'Ingres, his more limited use of photomontage. It consists of three chapters, each devoted to one of these three modes. In tandem—and in a departure from the traditional literature—I consider Man Ray's commercial activities as a society portraitist and fashion photographer alongside his explicitly “artistic” photography, exploring the ways in which his avant-garde and commercial practices were interwoven, both discursively and on formal grounds.

An overarching goal of this project is to find a way of reading Man Ray's work that can both describe and account for the relationship between its formal attributes and its socio-historical context. This, I argue, can be achieved through a sustained analysis of the crucial role and specific contours of Man Ray's ambivalence toward the photographic medium. As Jane Livingston notes, with the exception of a brief period following his “invention” of the rayograph, “Man Ray claimed most to revere [painting] .... It is clear,” she further contends, “from the present vantage point that precisely in professing contempt for the photographic medium, he succeeded in making it work fluently for him.” Appraising Man Ray's early foray into avant-garde photography with Man and Woman (both 1918), Livingston describes his aesthetic as poised mid-way between the opposing sensibilities of his two mentors, Alfred Stieglitz and Marcel Duchamp: the works' strongly graphic values and elegant austerity an ironic nod to Stieglitz's modernist formalism; their elevation of every-day mass-produced objects an embrace of Duchamp's Dadaist provocations.1 To this dyad, one must add Rosalind Krauss' analysis of the way shadows function in Man and Woman as indexical anchors that tie the photographs to specific moments in time, at once distinguishing and protecting them from the ready-made's status as an object of pure exchange value.2

The picture of Man Ray that emerges from these observations is of an artist caught in the throes of ambivalence when faced with the challenges that photography as a form of mechanical reproduction and a medium of mass commercial culture posed to traditional conceptions of the artwork and its aesthetic value. Confronted with a set of seemingly irreconcilable options, Man Ray simply refused to choose. But as Livingston suggests, this ambivalent suspension was exceedingly generative. This, I contend, is particularly true for the rayograph and Violon d'Ingres, works marked by a delicate balance of opposing poles. However—in tandem with historical developments in consumer culture and as witnessed in his use of solarization—the generative potential of Man Ray's position begins to collapse in the late 1920s and early 1930s. What instead becomes clear is the way the ambivalences underlying his work enabled it to fulfill the aesthetic demands of a newly emergent spectacle culture, as exemplified by Man Ray's highly successful fashion photography for Harper's Bazaar.

1 Jane Livingston, “Man Ray and Surrealist Photography,” in L'Amour Fou: Photography and Surrealism (New York and Washington, D.C.: Abbeville Press, Inc. and the Corcoran Gallery of Art, 1985), 120–123. 2 Rosalind Krauss, “The Object Caught by the Heel,” in Making Mischief Dada Invades New York, ed. Francis M. Naumann et al. (New York: Whitney Museum of American Art, 1996), 248–251.

Indexing (document details)
Advisor: Krauss, Rosalind
School: Columbia University
School Location: United States -- New York
Source: DAI-A 70/08, Dissertation Abstracts International
Subjects: Art history
Keywords: Avant-garde, Fashion photography, Man Ray, Photography, Rayograph, Solarization, Surrealism, Violon d'Ingres
Publication Number: 3373721
ISBN: 978-1-109-34510-0
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