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Man Ray’s Return to Reason

Wednesday, September 21st, 2011

Salvador Dali and Man Ray, photographed in Paris by Carl van Vechten, June 16, 1934

One of the earliest cinematographic poets, Man Ray was a still photographer, painter, sculptor, who created a series of dazzling Dada films which still delight and amuse the viewer. Here’s a link to one of my favorites: Le Retour à la Raison (Return to Reason, 1923), 2 minutes in length, silent, which consists of random live images intercut with “Rayographs,” made by sprinkling salt, pepper, thumbtacks, pins and other materials directly on the film in the darkroom, then exposing it to controlled amounts of light.

As Man Ray said of the making of the film, “Acquiring a roll of a hundred feet of film, I went into my darkroom and cut up the material into short lengths, pinning them down on the worktable. On some strips I sprinkled salt and pepper, like a cook preparing a roast, on other strips I threw pins and thumbtacks at random; then I turned on the white light for a second or two, as I had done for my still Rayographs. Then I carefully lifted the film off the table, shaking off the debris, and developed it in my tanks. The next morning, when dry, I examined the work; the salt, pins and tacks were perfectly reproduced.”

“I paint what cannot be photographed, that which comes from the imagination or from dreams, or from an unconscious drive. I photograph the things that I do not wish to paint, the things which already have an existence.” (Undated interview, circa 1970s; published in Man Ray: Photographer, 1981.)

About the Author

Wheeler Winston Dixon

Wheeler Winston Dixon, Ryan Professor of Film Studies at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, is an internationally recognized scholar and writer of film history, theory and criticism. He is the author of thirty books and more than 100 articles on film, and appears regularly in national media outlets discussing film and culture trends. Frame by Frame is a collection of his thoughts on a number of those topics. To contact Prof. Dixon for an interview, reach him at 402.472.6064 or Visit him at his website,

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