In 1935, artist/photographer Man Ray set up a camera to shoot a self-portrait. He opened the shutter, positioned himself in front of the camera, and with a small penlight he began to create a sequence of circles and swirls. This series of seemingly arbitrary markings he created with light blurred his face in the final photograph. Indeed, the self-portrait, eventually titled Space Writings, seemed rather abstract.
Fast forward to 2009. Ellen Carey, a photography professor at the University of Hartford, was examining Man Ray’s Space Writings when she discovered something that has remained hidden for nearly a century – the artist’s signature, created out of the same penlight nestled in the scribble.
“I knew instantly when I saw it—it’s a very famous self-portrait-that his signature was in it,” Carey tells Smithsonian Magazine. “I just got this flash of intuition.” She figured that to understand the self-portrait, one must look at it through the artist’s eyes, or at least through his point of view. So that’s exactly what she did. “I knew that if I held it up to a mirror, it would be there,” Carey says.
“This makes perfect sense if you understand that throughout his career, Man Ray did many artworks based off his signature,” explains Merry Foresta, Director of the Smithsonian Photography Initiative, and curator of the 1988 Man Ray exhibition at the National Museum of American Art (which is now the Smithsonian American Art Museum). In fact, Man Ray’s playful gesture is typical of his character. Man Ray, whose real name was Emmanuel Radnitsky, was born in Philadelphia in 1890. His family moved to New Jersey while Man Ray was still quite young. He began to educate himself with frequent trips to the local art museums, where he marveled at the work of art’s great masters. After graduation, Man Ray was offered a scholarship to study architecture but he chose to move to New York City to pursue art instead. There, he met and befriended fellow avant-garde artist Marcel Duchamp, who introduced him into the modern art scene. The two worked closely together, and found a shared interest in Dadaism, which rejected conventional aesthetics, and eventually, Surrealism, which promoted the purely subjective experience.
In 1921, Man Ray left New York for Paris, home of the avant-garde movement. During this time, Man Ray began to explore the possibilities of photography. He was fascinated by photography’s abilities to translate a painting’s colors into tonalities and to so easily produce the dimensions that required tedious and time-consuming efforts to paint. With photography, Man Ray found he could achieve his desired effects with minimal effort. Most importantly, photography liberated him from convention and imperative. With a natural talent and incredible acumen for the art, Man Ray became the unofficial photographer for the city’s art elite, photographing everyone from James Joyce to Pablo Picasso.
During his early years in Paris, Man Ray sought new ways to reinterpret and reinvent artistic mediums. It was not long before he had developed a technique for creating photographic images by placing objects directly on light-sensitive paper and then exposing them to light of various degrees and angles. He called these photograms “Rayographs.”
One of Man Ray’s most common subject pieces were hands. Main, the French word for “hand” is actually pronounced like the English word “men,” making it quite similar to his own name. Though Space Writings is one of only a few works in which he is known to have included an actual signature.
Man Ray created Space Writings just around the time he was preparing to return to New York for an exhibit at the Museum of Modern Art: “Fantastic Art, Dada, Surrealism.” For the first time, Dadaist and Surrealist art would be shown together in the United States. Many historians and experts speculate that Man Ray was hoping the exhibit would provide the perfect forum for his return, yet was concerned about leaving the city that had helped make his career take off. “This was really a turning point in his career,” says Foresta. “He was about to lose his identity as an important artist.” By incorporating his signature into Space Writings, she believes, Man Ray could physically declare himself to a new audience.
But if Man Ray’s intention was to assert himself, then why would he have opted to have the writing reversed? Foresta believes it stems from his general demeanor. “I think it mattered to Man Ray to be known as a mysterious inventor, an alchemist,” Foresta says. “He can see it, but to us, it’s still an abstract image.”
It may have taken seven decades to fully appreciate and understand the hidden signature, but it seems that could have been Man Ray’s intent. “It’s saying, ‘Hello, how come no one noticed for 70 years?’” explains Carey. “I think he would be chuckling right now. Finally, somebody figured him out.”