Burnaway > Features > Man Ray: Rayograph vs. Photogram

Man Ray: Rayograph vs. Photogram

Photogram by Man Ray, c. 1922
Photogram by Man Ray, c. 1922

Although commonly dubbed as the photogram today, there’s a pleasant science-fiction flavor to Man Ray‘s original coinage, the Rayograph. It’s basically a photograph, although one created without the use of a camera. A Rayograph is created by placing objects directly onto a chemically “sensitized” surface and then exposing them to light.

Man Ray—whose snarky experiments included that “cuddly” iron Gift—was a member of the Surrealist movement. His first photograms were an extension of the group’s dedication to chance and the irrational fringes of human experience. His Untitled may not look like much today, but Ray was interested in the piece for its “automatic,” dreamlike quality.

The process was just as important as the product: you can imagine Man Ray dancing around the darkroom, sowing random ideas like so many “wild oats.” It’s like that Pixies song:


Photogram by Moholy-Nagy, c. 1992
Photogram by Moholy-Nagy, c. 1922

1922 was a good year for photography—the photogram was actually “invented” twice, once by Ray and then a few months later by László Moholy-Nagy. As a Constructivist, Moholy-Nagy treated his work like a series of science experiments:

One of Moholy-Nagy's Light-Space Modulators

Although his photogram method was identical to Ray’s, the motivation differed—Moholy-Nagy was interested in the physics of art rather than its psychology.

Are photograms still popular? I’m inclined to say “no,” but I can’t say for sure. Marcia Wood, for example, hosted a “Cameraless Photographs” exhibition in 2004, featuring these work by Hanno Otten. Look out for photograms this month at various events for Atlanta Celebrates Photography.

And if you have darkroom access, you can try making a photogram yourself.

Sources online:

And in Print:
H.H. Arnason, History of Modern Art, ISBN 013184069X

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  • Avatar
    November 14, 2010 at

    ‘Shadow Catchers’ at V&A London 2010 – 2011.

    Camera-less photography ~ well worth a visit.

  • Avatar
    March 5, 2009 at

    ily man ray.

  • Avatar
    Jeremy Abernathy
    October 23, 2008 at

    This was an excellent comment. This was actually a “scheduled post” (another WordPress feature), so I wrote it some time ago. I just learned about photograms made by sunlight, and I really, really like the idea.

    I’ll look at the html settings–otherwise you’re fine. (I ran into the same problem posting on Cinque’s blog…)

    It’s funny, I’m aiming for a more “legible” style on Burn Away, but we may have to bring back some of those self-aware hyperlink shenanigans.

  • Avatar
    October 22, 2008 at

    Moholy-Nagy often used “daylight paper” which requires no darkroom, & he got some stunning results, as seen here:
    a nice Moholy example of “daylight paper”
    The photogram offered here, on printing-out paper, was exposed by Moholy in daylight, and created by him not over a period of seconds, but over a period of minutes. The daylight paper allowed Moholy to see the image as it evolved, giving him the opportunity to move, alter, or create new forms and compositions as the image emerged. In his 1928 essay, Photographic Manipulations of Light, Moholy praised the use of daylight paper for photograms, for ‘within a short time one can observe the formation of the contours of the object and its shadow on bright layers in a dark ground’

    i recently came across some “sunprint paper” at the junkstore, which i play’d with & got these rather primitive results:

    the Sunprint Paper needs no darkroom & appears to be available rather cheaply at places like this:
    “Sunprint paper”

    (please excuse the mess if WordPress don’t accept html, i’m not very familiar w/ the platform & dislike the lack of a “preview” feature on the comment box)

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