Infra-thin Multimedia

Man Ray's Paris Portraits: 1921-39

Ben Howell Davis

Museum Computer Network Conference, 1990.

See also: Multimedia Computing: Case Studies from MIT Project Athena, Chapter 9, Man Ray, Hodges and Sasnett, eds., Addison Wesley, 1993.

The possible, implying the becoming - the passage from one to the other takes place in the infra-thin.

Marcel Duchamp, Notes. Arranged and translated by Paul Matisse, G.K. Hall, Boston, 1983.

The dynamic use of language demonstrated by the above quote provided George Hemphill and me with justification for an endless variety of artistic projects in the late 1970s. We worked on a book called BEO that was the artifact of accumulated mail art pieces. (BEO. George Hemphill, Ben Davis, Sarah Schroth, Atlanta, Nexus Press, Atlanta, 1977. Funded in part by the National Endowment for the Arts.) The book was soon translated into an electronic project called Overbody that utilized a WATS telephone line as an alternative space and was published as a sixteen track audio tape. (Overbody. George Hemphill, Ben Davis, Darryl Vance, Senoj Inc., Atlanta, 1979. Funded in part by the National Endowment for the Arts.)

Hemphill, an accomplished painter, photographer, and writer with numerous exhibitions and publications, is now Curator of Photography for the Middendorf Gallery in Washington, DC. He has recently published Man Ray's Paris Portraits: 1921-39. I was invited to Franklin Graphics in Providence, Rhode Island, to see the book in production. Instantly our old dialogs on the book as object/transmitter were invoked by the smell of the ink and the roar of the presses flashing images.

Looking over the proof sheets, Hemphill began telling me about Timothy Baum, the man who had provided many of the photographs and anecdotes for the exhibition as well as the forward for the book. Baum, a poet and authority on surrealism and dada, had made a list when he was in college of the ten most interesting people in the world he wanted to meet. One of them was Man Ray. Baum had spent many years with Man Ray and had known many of the personalities photographed by him. The history was still very much living in his memory: Hemingway, Picabia, Picasso, Braque, Duchamp, Breton, Stein, Stravinsky, Leger, Miro, Satie, Gris and more. It was like an album of seventy four of our old friends and inspirations. But more than this it was a treasure-trove of personalities that changed history. These were the thinkers who were our most direct artistic ancestors. They provided the "passage from one to the other".

As we pored through the reproductions, I saw Marcel Proust. Man Ray had been summoned to photograph Proust on his death bed. The man who had written A la Recherche du Temps Perdu was himself a dead photo memory - the ultimate surrealist/dada image!

Sad and funny, this image started us thinking into the infra-thin. Other meanings by Duchamp include:

fire without smoke, the warmth of a seat which has just beeen left, reflection from a mirror or glass, watered silk , iridescents, the people who go through (subway gates) at the very last moment, velvet trousers their whistling sound is an infra-thin separation signaled. (Marcel Duchamp, Notes, pg 45).

With George Hemphill's permission we began preparing Man Ray's Portraits for their entry into the electronic age. Prototyping this book into an electronic, hypermedia format would provide us with some insight into how a visual history book based on portraiture could provide a "human-face, human-interface." The prospect was deliciously dada. It might illucidate Duchamp's definition of the infra-thin: "The exchange between what one puts on view ... and the glacial regard of the public (which sees and immediately forgets). Very often this exchange has the value of an infra-thin separation, meaning that the more a thing is admired and looked at the less there is an infinite separation. How then to create the interface? Where to begin?

Man Ray's images were the answer, of course.

Working with Michael Webster now at the MIT Center for Educational Computing Initiatives, I thought it might be interesting to present him with the book and the problem without much discussion. He would have to learn something about Man Ray and the portraits in order to put his interface design skills to work. Hemingway and Picasso were of course familiar, but who was Leger? I had written a paper on Leger's Ballet Mechanique and had copied a section of the film borrowed from the Harvard Film Archive onto an eight inch videodisc. I worked with Webster to identify some of the portraits and he went off to the MIT Rotch Visual Library in the Architecture and Urban Planning Department to find slides of various artists works. We made a small visual database of about 1000 slides, the silent Leger film, my essay, notes from Hemphill, and some of Stravinky's Firebird. How would one enter the electronic book? Initially we decided to make postage-stamp-size images of some thirty of the portraits and lay them out on the main screen. The familiarity of some of the images and the striking mystery of others (Lenore X ?) gave the user a comfortable balance.

But something was missing.

We showed the interface to computer artist Paul Rutkovsky. His first reaction was "Can you go in there and manipulate the images, the way Man Ray would have?" We suddenly realized we had not used the spirit of the period in our design. We had made a slide library interface, not a "Paris 1921-39" interface. It occured to me that the initial screen presented to the user should intrigue. Certainly any of Man Ray's images would do this to some degree. His "Rayograms," the stylized photograms he made by laying three dimensional objects on a sheet of photographic paper seemed most appropriate. They were simple uses of photo technology that created complex, almost x-ray like images. Man Ray's rayogram of a man and a woman kissing became the "portal image". The user is confronted with that sepia image full screen and a small gray rectangle that simply says "Paris 1921-39.". When you click on the box, the image fractures into dozens of stretched and shrunken versions making a collage that presents you with another "key" that says "Man Ray's Paris Portraits, 1921-39." When you press here you are inside the book and your thirty options are displayed.

By questioning Leger's portrait for instance, the screen transforms into a visual and textual catalog. A full motion video window appears with on-screen buttons for slow, fast, step, and real time speeds. The clip from Ballet Mechanique is displayed along with a text. Various words and phrases are highlighted in the text and as the reader clicks on them the images referred to in the film appear in the video window. Other options in the video package allow you to review Leger's paintings from the period as well as text descriptions. You may also return to the main screen and select other options from the portraits. You may, for instance, select Picasso and Miro, split the screen using the window manager, and review the contents of their visual files simultaniously in order to compare paintings made during the same years. Text descriptions are also provided. Stravinsky's file contains a text on Firebird and by accessing highlighted phrases you can hear sections of the work. The main screen also holds the option for investigating Man Ray himself. Paintings, photographs, written material, other photographs of him, and, eventually, his films will be available.

The possibilities of the interface seem deceptively simple. Round up the usual suspects and let them face off! The ability to cross reference works of art, personal affiliations, critical texts, diaries, literary works, anecdotes, documentary film footage, contemporary biographies seemed limited by computer memory only. But why Man Ray? Why do these pictures seem especially appropriate?

Timothy Baum gives us a hint in his forward to the book: "Man Ray... did not take photographs, but created them. Each portrait was a separate little adventure; the resultant print a work of art. No two sittings were alike for him, and every separate sitting was a form of intimate occasion...Man Ray as the consumate hunter, in love. By the end of the mid-1920s, few of the Parisian social and artistic hierarchy had not crossed the threshold of Man Ray's studio. If intimate photographic encounters could be credited as love affairs, then Man Ray was the only Casanova (or Rasputin?) of photography since the nineteenth century's grand master, Nadar. Surely in the annals of achievement in twentieth century portraiture, Man Ray would have no equal."

Man Ray's own recollection of making Henri Matisse's portrait is excellent evidence:

When I opened my bag to set up my camera, I found to my horror that I had forgotten the lens which was wrapped separately ... Removing my glasses I taped them to the front of my camera so that one of the lenses covered the opening, but in such a manner that only a small portion of the glass showed. Then, focusing on my subject through the ground glass, I saw a quite pleasing image.. All the shots turned out well ... Matisse was pleased.
Man Ray, Self Portrait, Boston, 1988, Little, Brown and Company, pg.54.

Man Ray was both a visual poet and a storyteller. His work provides a rich fabric that weaves iconic images into poetic narratives.

The potential of this electronic "virtual museum" as an intellectual resource must also be close to what Duchamp refered to as a "delay". If we liken the interface as the "infra-thin filter" between the "implying and the becoming", the veil of authorship between the artist and the viewer, then we have used technology much as the dadaist employed it - as a "dynamo". The exploration of this subject matter, Man Ray's Paris portraits, has allowed us to make a fascinating correspondence between art historical information and artistic metaphor. It has allowed us a breadth of research that pursues art as an intellectual resource, a thinking tool.

What would electronic computing technology have meant to Man Ray? What sort of portrait would it have allowed? What sort of historical moment would be invoked? Would we be looking at a hypertext construction that combined Duchamp and McLuhan? Would the quotes referred to earlier become "Under electronic technology the entire business of man becomes learning and knowing; implying the becoming - the passage from one to another takes place in the infra-thin"? And might the attendant image be the kissing electric Rayogram?

Much like the word processor, the multimedia computer must take its appropriate place as the filter for electronic information conditions that engage and illuminate the intellect. Museums are the repositories of cultural history and multimedia computing can bring collections closer to their traditional function of enlightening us to our origins and our possible futures. The separation between object and meaning, between implication and becoming, approaches the multimedia infra-thin.


Rosalind Krauss and Jane Livingston, L'Amour Fou. New York; Abbeville Press, 1985.

Man Ray's Paris Portraits: 1921-39. Forward by Timothy Baum, Middendorf Publications, Washington, D.C., 1989.

Man Ray, Self Portrait. Boston; Little, Brown and Company, 1988.

Marcel Duchamp, Notes. Edited and translated by Paul Matisse, Boston; G.K. Hall, 1983.

Gianfranco Baruchello and Henry Martin, Why Duchamp. New York; Mcpherson and Company, 1985.