Man Ray’s Lost and Found Photographs: Arts of the Americas in Context

Wendy Grossman


Man Ray’s virtually unknown photographs of a much celebrated Aztec birthing figure commonly identified as Tlazolteotl—the goddess of earth, sex, and childbirth in Aztec mythology—provide the springboard for exploring a body of little known photographs of non-Western objects the artist created in Paris in the 1920s and ‘30s. Integrating his images of objects from indigenous peoples of the “New World” into his photographic repertoire of other non-Western objects, this article reveals the context and manner in which art of the Americas became a vehicle for his creative expression alongside objects from Africa and Oceania. Turning his camera lens to such objects, Man Ray produced images that—through a symbiotic relationship of content and form— imbued the objects with the same modernist aesthetic he pioneered in his photographs. In so doing, he created a new type of photography that defies categorization and functions ambiguously in the gap between the ethnographic and the surreal. This body of images provides both a window into the way in which such cultural artifacts became enmeshed in transatlantic artistic practices of the interwar period and insight into the role of his photographic endeavors in that process. The recovery of Man Ray’s photographs of the “Tlazolteotl” figure from obscurity and the examination of his engagement with the indigenous arts of the Americas allow new assessment of the work of this artist and contribute to a comprehensive understanding of his innovative approach to photographing objects of non-Western art.

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