Man Ray's birth name was Emmanuel Radnitzky in South Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, US, in 1890. He was the eldest child of Russian Jewish immigrants Max, a tailor, and Minnie Radnitzky. He had a brother, Sam, and two sisters, Dora and Essie, the youngest born in 1897 shortly after they settled in the Williamsburg neighborhood of Brooklyn, New York. In early 1912, the Radnitzky family changed their surname to Ray. Man Ray's brother chose the surname in reaction to the ethnic discrimination and antisemitism prevalent at the time. Emmanuel, who was called "Manny" as a nickname, changed his first name to Man and gradually began to use Man Ray as his name.
Man Ray displayed artistic and mechanical abilities during childhood. His education at Brooklyn's Boys' High School from 1904 to 1909 provided him with solid grounding in drafting and other basic art techniques. While he attended school, he educated himself with frequent visits to the local art museums, where he studied the works of the Old Masters. After his graduation, Ray was offered a scholarship to study architecture but chose to pursue a career as an Artist. Man Ray's parents were disappointed by their son's decision to pursue art, but they agreed to rearrange the family's modest living quarters so that Ray's room could be his studio. The Artist remained in the family home over the next four years. During this time, he worked steadily towards becoming a professional Painter. Man Ray earned money as a commercial Artist and was a technical Illustrator at several Manhattan companies.
The surviving examples of his work from this period indicate that he attempted mostly paintings and drawings in 19th-century styles. He was already an avid admirer of contemporary avant-garde art, such as the European modernists he saw at Alfred Stieglitz's "291" gallery and works by the Ashcan School. However, with a few exceptions, he was not yet able to integrate these trends into his own work. The art classes he sporadically attended, including stints at the National Academy of Design and the Art Students League, were of little apparent benefit to him. When he enrolled in the Ferrer School in the autumn of 1912, he began a period of intense and rapid artistic development.
In 1913, Man Ray met his first wife, the Belgian poet Adon Lacroix (Donna Lecoeur) (1887–1975), in New York. They married in 1914, separated in 1919, and formally divorced in 1937.
In 1915, Man Ray had his first solo show of paintings and drawings after he had taken up residence at an art colony in Grant Wood, New Jersey, across the Hudson River from New York City. His first proto-Dada object, an assemblage titled Self-Portrait, was exhibited the following year. He produced his first significant photographs in 1918.
Man Ray abandoned conventional painting to involve himself with Dada, a radical anti-art movement. He started making objects and developed unique mechanical and photographic methods of making images. For the 1918 version of Rope Dancer, he combined a spray-gun technique with a pen drawing. Like Duchamp, he did readymades—ordinary objects that are selected and modified. His Gift readymade (1921) is a flatiron with metal tacks attached to the bottom, and Enigma of Isidore Ducasse is an unseen object (a sewing machine) wrapped in cloth and tied with cord. Aerograph (1919), another work from this period, was done with airbrush on glass.
Man Ray teamed up with Duchamp to publish one issue of New York Dada in 1920. For Man Ray, Dada's experimentation was no match for the wild and chaotic streets of New York. He wrote that "Dada cannot live in New York. All New York is dada, and will not tolerate a rival."
In July 1921, Man Ray went to live and work in Paris, France. He soon settled in the Montparnasse quarter favored by many artists. Shortly after arriving in Paris, he met and fell in love with Kiki de Montparnasse (Alice Prin), an artists' model and celebrated character in Paris bohemian circles. Kiki was Man Ray's companion for most of the 1920s. She became the subject of some of his most famous photographic images and starred in his experimental films, Le Retour à la Raison and L'Étoile de mer. In 1929, he began a love affair with the Surrealist Photographer Lee Miller. Miller left him in 1932.
Man Ray directed a number of influential avant-garde short films, known as Cinéma Pur. He directed Le Retour à la Raison (2 mins, 1923); Emak-Bakia (16 mins, 1926); L'Étoile de Mer (15 mins, 1928); and Les Mystères du Château de Dé (27 mins, 1929). Man Ray also assisted Marcel Duchamp with the cinematography of his film Anemic Cinema (1926), and Ray personally manned the camera on Fernand Léger's Ballet Mécanique (1924). In René Clair's film Entr'acte (1924), Man Ray appeared in a brief scene playing chess with Duchamp.
Man Ray was represented in the first Surrealist exhibition with Jean Arp, Max Ernst, André Masson, Joan Miró, and Pablo Picasso at the Galerie Pierre in Paris in 1925. Important works from this time were a metronome with an eye, originally titled Object to Be Destroyed, and the Violon d'Ingres, a stunning photograph of Kiki de Montparnasse, styled after the painter/musician Ingres. Violon d'Ingres is a popular Example of how Man Ray could juxtapose disparate elements in his photography to generate meaning.
In 1934, surrealist Artist Méret Oppenheim, known for her fur-covered teacup, posed nude for Man Ray in a well-known series of photographs depicting her standing next to a printing press.
Man Ray was forced to return from Paris to the United States due to the Second World War. He lived in Los Angeles from 1940 to 1951 where he focused his creative Energy on painting. A few days after arriving in Los Angeles, Man Ray met Juliet Browner, a first-generation American of Romanian-Jewish lineage. She was a trained Dancer, who studied dance with Martha Graham, and an experienced artists' model. The two married in 1946 in a double wedding with their friends Max Ernst and Dorothea Tanning. In 1948 Man Ray had a solo exhibition at the Copley Galleries in Beverley Hills, which brought together a wide array of work and featured his newly painted canvases of the Shakespearean Equations series.
Man Ray returned to Paris in 1951, and settled with Juliet into a studio at 2 bis rue Ferou near the Luxembourg Gardens in St. Germain des Pres, where he continued his creative practice across mediums. During the last quarter century of his life, he returned to a number of his iconic earlier works, recreating them in new form. He also directed the production of limited-edition replicas of several of his objects, working first with Marcel Zerbib and later Arturo Schwarz.
In 1963, he published his autobiography, Self-Portrait, which was republished in 1999.
In 1974, Man Ray received the Royal Photographic Society's Progress Medal and Honorary Fellowship "in recognition of any invention, research, publication or other contribution which has resulted in an important advance in the scientific or technological development of photography or imaging in the widest sense." In 1999, ARTnews magazine named Man Ray one of the 25 most influential artists of the 20th century. The publication cited his groundbreaking photography, "his explorations of film, painting, sculpture, collage, assemblage and prototypes of what would eventually be called performance art and conceptual art." ARTnews further stated that "Man Ray offered artists in all media an Example of a creative intelligence that, in its 'pursuit of pleasure and liberty', unlocked every door it came to and walked freely where it would." Seeking pleasure and liberty was one of Ray's guiding principles, along with others such as doing things that are socially prohibited.
He died in Paris on November 18, 1976, from a lung infection. He was interred in the Cimetière du Montparnasse in Paris. Ray's epitaph reads "unconcerned, but not indifferent". When Juliet Browner died in 1991, she was interred in the same tomb. Her epitaph reads "together again". Juliet organized a trust for his work and donated much of his work to museums. Her plans to restore the studio as a public museum proved too expensive; such was the structure's disrepair. Most of the contents were stored at the Pompidou Center.
In March 2013, Man Ray's photograph Noire et Blanche (1926) was featured in the United States Postal Service's "Modern Art in America" series of stamps.