Man Ray’s Électricité (1931) series and the Commodification of Light

In Paris between the World Wars (1918-1939), photographers began avidly producing photographs made possible by electric lights. Although painters and printmakers had been representing scenes illuminated by electric light as early as the 1870s, photographers only started to do so in earnest after World War I, at a time when electric light became more widespread.

Instead of relying on the brightness of daylight to make their images, photographers began to create pictures in situations where electric light was the dominant form of illumination. In this paper, I will analyze the ways in which the American expatriate and avant-garde photographer Man Ray investigated the visual possibilities afforded by electric light in the recently electrified photographer’s darkroom.

This paper takes as its focus Man Ray’s series of ten photographs, collectively titled Électricité, commissioned by a French electrical company in 1931. In Électricité, Man Ray combines representations of natural and artificial light sources with ethereal silhouettes of electric domestic goods. Not only does Man Ray’s series visualize light and light sources in a multitude of new ways, but also he made the images using his eponymously named light-based Rayograph process. Rayographs, invented by Man Ray in the early 1920s, were created when the photographer projected electric light through objects placed directly onto light-sensitive photography paper in the photographer’s darkroom, sometimes without the need for an intermediary camera-made negative. Man Ray’s enticing exploration of light both as the subject and medium of this commissioned series has been minimally addressed in the scholarship on this prolific artist. My paper will discuss how Man Ray used the electrified darkroom as a space in which to visualize the symbiotic relationship between light and photography.

Jennifer Friess is a PhD candidate in art history at the University of Kansas where she currently is writing her dissertation entitled “Energizing Paris: Photography and Electric Light in the Interwar Period.” She earned a BFA in photography from Rochester Institute of Technology in New York and a MA in art history from Case Western Reserve University in Ohio. She has interned at the George Eastman House International Museum of Photography and Film, the Cleveland Museum of Art, and the Museum of Contemporary Art, Cleveland. Her research focuses on the intersections of art and technology in the twentieth century.