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'The Delicious Fields: Exploring Man Ray's Rayographs in a Digital Future'

 

Published in The University of Queensland Vanguard Magazine: 'Man Ray: Life, Work and Themes', 2004, Triad series #2, pp. 40 - 46. ISBN 0-9756043-0-9.

 

Abstract

This paper seeks to investigate the Rayographs of Man Ray in order to understand how the conceptual ideas contained within this work has relevance within contemporary digital technologies. I examine my own experiments with depth of field using a digital scanner, particularly in a body of work called 'Chronos/ome' from 2002.

 

Keywords

Man Ray, Rayographs, depth of field, photogram, time, light, alchemy.

 

 

 
'Rayograph' 1922 Man Ray
 
 

 

Figure 1. 'Rayograph'. 1922.

Man Ray
 

 

“Like the undisturbed ashes of an object consumed by flames these images are oxidized residues fixed by light and chemical elements of an experience, an adventure, not an experiment. They are the result of curiosity, inspiration, and these words do not pretend to convey any information.”1

 

I have always been fascinated by the work of the artist and alchemist Man Ray and, perhaps subconsciously, his art has influenced my own investigations.2 Like Joseph Cornell of a later generation, Man Ray saw the world through a different lens, or no lens at all. He created tangible dreamscapes, photographs that exposed latent images within the photographic paper, images that were captured by light. After studying with Alfred Stieglitz in New York, Man Ray arrived in Paris and tried to rid himself of the shackles of straight photography.3 Man Ray knew and admired the work of Eugene Atget who photographed the parks, doors and laneways of old Paris from the turn of the century until 1927, when he died. Atget sold his photographs to make a living, and he was not regarded as an artist until after his death at which time Bernice Abbot, a friend of Man Ray, saved his archive of glass plates from destruction. Atget is now recognised as one of the true masters of photography. He imbues within his photographs an extraordinary sense of space and distortion of time. “Atget’s images reverberate (retentir), in Minkowski's sense of the word, with an essence of life that flows onward in terms of time and space independent of their causality.”4 His images propose an almost chimerical surrealism, the ‘surreal lyricism of the streets’.5
I remember this sense of space most clearly evidenced in a body of Man Ray’s architectural photographs of Paris exhibited at the Pompidou Centre. The date of the exhibition escapes me. What I do remember are small (no bigger than 4” by 5”) black and white photographs of Parisian buildings that had an incredible presence in their spatial construction. I have never seen these photographs reproduced in a book, yet I regard them as some of the greatest masterpieces in photography. These architectural photographs have a lot in common with the construction of the Rayographs. Both types of photograph rely on the skill of the artist but seem to deny his existence, the photographs revealing themselves to the viewer without the ego or the hand of the artist being present. As Mark Greenberg has noted,

“The Rayographs carried even further [the] refutation of the artist’s role in image making by allowing the objects arranged on the paper to be “drawn” by the action of light rather than by the human hand.”6

 

 
'Rayograph' 1922 Man Ray
 
 

 

Figure 2. 'Rayograph'. 1922.

Man Ray
 

 

The Rayographs

Although not the inventor of the photogram, a photograph made without the use of a camera by placing objects directly onto sensitised photographic paper and then exposing the paper to light, Man Ray’s Rayographs have become the most recognisable and famous form that photograms have taken. This is because of their inventiveness, their subliminal connection to the psyche, and the use of “objects from the real world to make ambiguous dreamscapes.”7 It is interesting that Man Ray called his images Rayographs, for a graph implies a topographical mapping, a laying out of statistics, whereas Lucia Moholy and László Moholy-Nagy’s photograms imply in the title of their technique the transmission of some form of message, like a telegram. The paradox is that, as the first quotation at the beginning of this text states, Man Ray always insisted that his Rayographs imparted no information at all; perhaps they are only dreams made (un)stable. Contrary to this the other two artists believed that, “photographic images – cameraless and other – should not deal with conventional sentiments or personal feelings but should be concerned with light and form,”8 quite the reverse of the title of their technique.
After his arrival in Paris Man Ray started experimenting in his darkroom and discovered the technique for his Rayographs by accident. With the help of his friend the Surrealist poet Tristan Tzara, he published a portfolio of twelve Rayographs in 1922 called ‘Les champs délicieux’ (The delicious fields). “This title is a reference to ‘Les champs magnétiques, a collection of writings by André Breton and Philippe Soupault composed from purportedly random thought fragments recorded by the two authors.”
9 The Rayographs are visual representations of random thought fragments, “photographic equivalents for the Surrealist sensibility that glorified randomness and disjunction.”10 Man Ray, “denied the camera its simplest joy: the ability to capture everything, all the distant details, all the ephemeral lights and shadows of the world”11 but, paradoxically, the Rayographs are the most ephemeral of creatures, only being able to be created once, the result not being known until after the photographic paper has been developed. In fact, for Man Ray to create his portfolio ‘Les champs délicieux’ (The delicious fields), he had to rephotograph the Rayographs in order to make multiple copies.12

Man Ray “insisted in nearly every interview that the Rayograph was not a photogram in the traditional sense. He did something that a photogram didn’t; he introduced depth into the images,”13 which denied the images their photographic objectivity by depicting an internal landscape rather than an external one.14 What the Rayographs do not deny, however, is the subjectivity of the artist, his skill at placing the objects on the photographic paper, expressed in their dream-like nature, both a subjective ephemerality (because they could only be produced once) and an ephemeral subjectivity (because they were expressions of Man Ray’s fantasies, and therefore had little substance). Through an alchemical process the latent images emerge from the photographic paper, representations of Man Ray’s fantasies as embodied in the ‘presence’ of the objects themselves, in the surface of the paper. Perhaps these objects offer, in Heidegger’s terms, ‘a releasment towards things’,15

“a coexistence between a conscious and unconscious way of perceiving which sustains the mystery of the object confusing the distinction between real time and sensual time, between inside and outside, input and output becoming neither here nor there.”16

Finally, within their depth of field the Rayographs can be seen as both dangerous and delicious, for somehow they are both beautiful and unsettling at one and the same time. As Surrealism revels in randomness and chance these images enact the titles of other Man Ray photographs: ‘Danger-Dancer’, ‘Anxiety’, ‘Dust Raising’, ‘Distorted House’. The Rayographs revel in chance and risk; Man Ray brings his fantasies to the surface, an interior landscape represented externally that can be (re)produced only once - those dangerous delicious fields.

 

The Chronos/omes

“Computers ... lead us to construct things in new ways.”17

“Our experience of spatial contiguity has also been radically altered by digital representation. Fragmented into discrete and contained units ... space has lost much of its contextual function as the ground for the continuities of time, movement, and event. Space is now more often a “text” than a “context.""18

 

My artistic work (see home) has consisted of a journey from classical black and white, to colour, and digital photography through installation work that combines photographs in 3D structures, such as digital images printed into paper planes. At first my concern was to tell personal narratives about place, space, identity and environment. In the last few years my artistic work has concentrated on the interface between identity, technology and the body. In my formative training I was influenced by the work of artists such as Eugene Atget, Edward Weston, Minor White, and Man Ray. During black and white photographic work I experimented rather crudely and briefly with photograms, but this line of inquiry was not pursued.
Later, I started working digitally and began thinking about the depth of field of the Rayographs and how the objects that Man Ray placed on the photographic paper were less in focus the further they were from the photographic paper. How could this depth of field, these delicious fields, be interpreted using the glass of the digital scanner
in place of the photographic paper?

 

 
'Symbowl Seven' 1998
 
 

 

Figure 3. 'Symbowl Seven'. 1998.

Marcus Bunyan
 
     
 
'Symbowl Six' 1998
 
 

 

Figure 4. 'Symbowl Six'. 1998.

Marcus Bunyan
 

 

My first images of a three-dimensional nature were of lawn bowls placed directly onto the glass of the scanner (See Figures 3 and 4 above) exhibited with the hands of local bowlers. The images were made for a solo exhibition called Symbowl in 1998 that investigated socially and culturally constructed semiological systems that are continually used in the making and reading of images, in this case the appearance and meaning of the symbols etched within the bowls as images of identity.19 With all text digitally removed the ‘symbowls’ become quite magical, the depth of field of the scanner making the bowling balls oval in shape, the light of the scanner passing over the bowl seen as an eye shape on its surface.
In one sense these symbols are text and have very little context, for they float in the inky blackness of digitisation, but in another sense they are quite the reverse, for they defy the rush to quantification, the loss of information, through their alchemical presence; again, a releasment towards things but in a different sphere. Perhaps the ‘ground’ that Vivian Sobchack is talking about has shifted – not to the (virtual) “text” that she suspects but to a different form of “context,” towards Deleuze and Guattari’s concept of ‘becoming’20 and Katherine Hayles ideas of pattern/randomness.21
(Pattern/randomness is a non-binary concept that applies conditions of change & variation to the material world, conditions that replace the binary opposition of absence/presence.)

 

 
Chronos/ome
 
 

 

Figure 5. 'Untitled'. 2002.

From the installation 'Chronos/ome'

Marcus Bunyan
 

 

In 2002 I started experimenting with the actual ‘travel’ of the scanner itself. The images in the installation Chronos/ome22 (See Figure 4 above and more images of the installation) continued my investigation into the man/machine interface. I sought to image the spatio-temporal dimensionality of the scanner using the distortion of time/form (literally ‘chronos/ ome’) in the travel of the scanner, using this (meta)physical time-travel to construct a scrolling (non)narrative. All the images except one were constructed by moving my hands in the air above the surface of the glass of the scanner as it travelled, the fragmentation in the images caused by my hands moving and by the scanner as it stopped and moved backwards before continuing. As Man Ray found with his Rayographs, these images are very ephemeral; I was never certain what was going to appear as the images ‘developed’ upon screen - the the latent image in the air above the scanner, those delicious fields brought to consciousness by the ‘developer’: “oxidized residues fixed by light,” stabilised by the computer.
Like Man Ray with his rephotographing of the Rayographs these digital images can be reproduced but they can never be (re)produced again. Sometimes these images took up to fifty attempts for the sometimes totemic aura of the objects to emerge, a synthesis of space, time, man, and machine revealing a posthuman, where dreams and danger, text and fluid context posit a noumenal future.

As Man Ray observes in the first quotation of this text, these images are images of an experience, an adventure, and not an experiment. In this case they are fixed not by chemicals but by pixels but they still evince a connection to random thought fragments, dreams and consciousness at the time I made them – and for that they will always be my dangerous delicious fields.

 

 

1 @
Man Ray quoted in Janus (trans. Murtha Baca). Man Ray: The Photographic Image (London: Gordon Fraser, 1980), 213.

2 @
Notice I do not say photographer for I believe, like others, that Man Ray was more than a photographer.

“He continually surpassed the limits of photography, and for this reason the designation “photographer” is extremely inappropriate for Man Ray.”

Janus (trans. Murtha Baca). Man Ray: The Photographic Image (London: Gordon Fraser, 1980), 9.

3 @
“The techniques with which he became associated – Rayograph, solarization, grainy printing – marked attempts to find a way out of the straight approach he had learned from Alfred Stieglitz back in New York and would never entirely abandon.”

Perl, Jed (ed.,). Man Ray: Aperture Masters of Photography (New York: Aperture, 1997), 11-12.

4 @
See the editor’s note by Gilson, Etienne (ed.,) in Bachelard, Gaston. (trans Maria Jolas). The Poetics of Space (Boston: Beacon Press, 1994), xvi.

5 @
Perl, Jed (ed.,). Man Ray: Aperture Masters of Photography (New York: Aperture, 1997), 24.

6 @
Greenberg, Mark (ed.,). In Focus: Man Ray: Photographs from the J. Paul Getty Museum (Los Angeles, The J. Paul Getty Museum, 1998), 44.

7 @
Ibid., 38.

8 @
Rosenblum, Naomi. A World History of Photography (New York: Abbeville Press, 1997), 394.

9 @
Greenberg, Mark (ed.,). In Focus: Man Ray: Photographs from the J. Paul Getty Museum (Los Angeles, The J. Paul Getty Museum, 1998), 28.
10 @
Perl, Jed (ed.,). Man Ray: Aperture Masters of Photography (New York: Aperture, 1997), 11-12.

11 @
Ibid., 5-6.

12 @
Greenberg, Mark (ed.,). In Focus: Man Ray: Photographs from the J. Paul Getty Museum (Los Angeles, The J. Paul Getty Museum, 1998), 28.

13 @
Ibid., 112.

14 @
Ibid., 28.

15 @
“We stand at once within the realm of that which hides itself from us, and hides itself just in approaching us. That which shows itself and at the same time withdraws is the essential trait of what we call the mystery … Releasement towards things and openness to the mystery belong together. They grant us the possibility of dwelling in the world in a totally different way...”

Heidegger, Martin. Discourse on Thinking (New York: Harper & Row, 1966), 55-56 quoted in Baracco, Mauro. “Completed Yet Unconcluded: The Poetic Resistance of Some Melbourne Architecture,” in van Schaik, Leon (ed.,). Architectural Design Vol. 72. No. 2 (‘Poetics in Architecture’). (London: John Wiley and Sons, 2002), 74, Footnote 6.

16 @
Bunyan, Marcus. Spaces That Matter: Awareness and Entropia in the Imaging of Place (2002) [Online] http://www.marcusbunyan.com/writing/spaces-that-matter-a.html Cited 07/07/2004.

17 @
Turkle, Sherry. Life on The Screen: Identity in the Age of the Internet (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1995), 26.

18 @
Sobchack, Vivian. Screening Space (New York: Ungar, 1991), 231-232 quoted in Springer, Claudia. Electronic Eros: Bodies and Desire in the Postindustrial Age (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1996), 44.

19 @
Bunyan, Marcus. Symbowl (Melbourne: Stop 22 Gallery, 1998). [Online]
http://www.marcusbunyan.com/symbowl/g.html Cited 07/07/2004

20 @
Deleuze and Guattari. A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia (London: The Athlone Press, 1988), 238-239.

21 @
Hayles, Katherine. How We Became Posthuman: Virtual Bodies in Cybernetics, Literature, and Informatics (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1999) 28.

22 @
Bunyan, Marcus. Chronos/ome (Melbourne: Monash University Art Gallery, 2002). [Online]
http://www.marcusbunyan.com/chronosome/m.html Cited 07/07/2004
 
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