Man Ray’s Champs Délicieux Turns 100
A photography conservator and a research assistant uncover new findings around the photographer’s 1922 portfolio.
Lee Ann Daffner, Jane Pierce
Feb 3, 2022
From left: Man Ray. Self-Portrait with Camera. 1931; Man Ray. Tristan Tzara. 1931
One hundred years later, we began looking into MoMA’s Champs Délicieux album, which, significantly, is number one out of the edition of 40. After frequent inquiries from outside scholars, it was clear this important work warranted extra attention. We began to assemble a dossier of archival and conservation research. Man Ray’s photographs have been studied and written about at length, and we were surprised that there were still so many unanswered questions: What was the full story behind the album joining MoMA’s collection? What happened to the album once it was acquired? Why and when was one of the photographs mysteriously removed? What could be learned from comparing original Rayographs to the reproductions in MoMA’s album? Where are the other 39 editions, and who were they originally owned by? Our search for answers led to a number of new discoveries along the way.
Lee Ann Daffner: Armed with this history and a list of unresolved questions, we turned to the album itself. At our first viewing in the conservation lab, we noted numerous inscriptions and labels that hadn’t been previously cataloged. On the album’s outer portfolio case, there was evidence of an old label, now gone, perhaps where a library call number had been placed. On the interior of the portfolio case, we found two layers of paper labels. The top one noted that the work was part of the “Photography Department Library” and then, attached directly below, and only visible by carefully lifting with a microspatula tool, was a general Library collection label, further supporting the notion that the album had been transferred to the Department of Photography. This piece of institutional history was of particular interest because, when the album was acquired, Beaumont Newhall had just been hired as librarian, and in 1940 he became a founder of the Department of Photography—and its first curator.
Lee Ann Daffner and Jane Pierce comparing a plate from Champs Délicieux to an original Rayograph
JP: We also wanted to determine why one of the photographs in the album had been removed from its mount. Handwritten graphite inscriptions on the album page for plate four noted that the photograph had been taken out in 1943. I pored through exhibition and loan records to track down the reason. I found records from a 1943 exhibition at the Cincinnati Modern Art Society, and was able to prove that plate four had traveled on loan to Ohio for the exhibition Form and Formula before returning to MoMA. Today the integrity of the album would be preserved, but in 1943 the approach to collection materials was more flexible...and made for some very lucky Cincinnatians.
View from the top edge showing sheets of paper folded to make the album pages. A thread (not visible in this image) is sewn through the sheets to bind the album together.
LD: The structure of the album is simple, yet elegant: The photographs are matte-surface gelatin silver prints on double-weight, off-white fiber-based photographic paper and each is precisely placed and tipped to an album page. The portfolio cover is a single sheet of thick, intensely pigmented red-orange paper with a bold yellow printed label. The album was made by folding six sheets of heavy-weight Fabriano paper and the cover in half, then binding the sheets together by sewing a thread through the center. The text folio is a single sheet of calendered, cream-colored paper, folded in half to create four pages, printed in letterpress and signed in ink on the last page by the artist. One of the many curious and exciting observations we made was that the text folio, now separate, was originally attached to the first page of the album. This was determined by lining up and comparing the folio paper losses to the paper fragments on the first mount: they were perfect matches!
From left: The “C. M. Fabriano (Italy)” watermark is visible through transmitted light on the album page for plate 7; The colophon page from the text folio shows paper losses near the fold at top right and bottom right that correspond to the paper fragments on the album page of plate 1.
The original Rayographs exhibited all of these features: they have sharp lines from points of contact and a tremendous gradation of tone from the fall-off of light around the objects. Under the conservation lab’s microscope, we observed a striking feature in the bright white highlights and delicate shaded mid-tone areas—they are nearly pristine—and where there might have been a bit of dust or debris on the paper (resulting in white spots on the Rayograph), Man Ray had carefully retouched the spot.
After inspecting the original Rayographs and then comparing them to the prints in the album, we noted the Champs Délicieux prints were not as crisp and sharp as the original Rayographs; the gradation of tones was less fine and less continuous, with more contrast than the originals. Furthermore, the reproductions exhibited quite a lot of dust and debris that had been captured in the copy negative. The dark dust and fibers that appeared in the Champs Délicieux plates could never be possible in an original photogram. From our examinations, it was clear that the prints in MoMA’s album are meticulously made reproductions, meaning Man Ray re-photographed the original Rayographs and then carefully printed the 40 sets needed for the edition.
These three images compare the degree of resolution to be seen in first generation photograms and the photographs in Champs Délicieux. At left, a detail of Rayograph 117.1941, taken at 180× magnification, showing a single strand of hair. At the right, a detail of Rayograph 111.1941 taken at 120× magnification, showing fine detail of cotton wool; and at center, detail of plate 12 (253.1935.12) taken at 120× magnification showing similar cotton wool, with much less resolution and detail
LD/JP: So why were these reproductions necessary, and how did Man Ray make them so convincing? Because all photograms are unique (in the same way Polaroid instant prints are one of a kind), a new negative was necessary to produce more prints. The photographs in Champs Délicieux were made with such technical expertise that they resemble original Rayographs. Man Ray first started practicing photography around 1915, because he couldn’t find someone to make high-quality photographic reproductions of his paintings. So, he decided to make his own, and he later got work photographing paintings by other artists as well. These technical skills would have served him well when he copied his own Rayographs.9 For Champs Délicieux, Man Ray used a large-format camera with 18 × 24 cm glass-plate negatives to reproduce his Rayographs, very likely the same “large secondhand camera” he used for the reproduction of paintings.10 From these negatives, he made contact prints, which have a high degree of fidelity to the originals. After printing and retouching, the prints were trimmed to remove the extraneous details.
Two views of plate 6 from Champs Délicieux. At left, an overall view of the plate and album page, and at right, a detail of the lower right quadrant. Silver mirroring is clearly visible along its edges under normal light.
MoMA’s album exhibits signs of natural aging that are material specific: Man Ray chose a beautiful matte-surface paper, which unfortunately is prone to silver mirroring. Other factors, such as fingerprints and detached album sheets, were the result of years of handling. The album is very fragile and must be treated with utmost care, yet even in its delicate state it is a fine example of a small-edition portfolio from the early 1920s. Champs Délicieux helped to reinvent photograms as a modern art form and, as Tzara poetically wrote of Man Ray in the album’s preface, “With a fresh and delicate flash of light, he invented a force that surpassed in importance all the constellations intended for our visual pleasure.”11
Throughout our research, we marveled at the discoveries that were made at each stage. With support from our expert MoMA colleagues in the library, archives, curatorial, and conservation departments, and from sister institutions, we pieced together new ways of understanding this album’s significance, just in time to celebrate its centenary.
The cover color measurements, using the X-Rite eXact advanced handheld reflectance spectrometer (all color data presented in CIE L*a*b* three dimensional color space—with each axis readings—L*51.19, a*58.64, b*48.11), situate the color in the most saturated point at the yellow/orange end of the red region.
Le Coeur à Barbe was a single-issue newspaper issued by Tristan Tzara. In the April 1922 edition (a few months before Champs Délicieux was published), the album was advertised at 200 FF for subscribers. Subscription requests were to be sent directly to Man Ray at his Paris hotel address. Accounting for currency inflation, $15 in 1922 is the equivalent of around $250.
For more on Tzara’s key role in propagating photograms across Europe, read Clément Chéroux’s essay “Tzara, fil rouge du photogramme à travers l’Europe,” in Tristan Tzara, l’homme approximatif (France: Musées de la ville de Strasbourg, 2015).
Margaret Scolari Barr and Rona Roob, “‘Our Campaigns’: Alfred H. Barr, Jr., and the Museum of Modern Art: A Biographical Chronicle of the Years 1930–1944,” in The New Criterion (New York: Foundation for Cultural Review, 1987).
Sylvie Pénichon, “Champs Délicieux, An Album of Twelve Rayographs by Man Ray,” in Conservation of Scrapbooks and Albums (Washington, DC: American Institute for Conservation of Historic and Artistic Works, 1999).
The Centre Pompidou holds a large collection of negatives by Man Ray, of which 192 date between 1917 and 1922. In this group, 26 are reproductions of artworks by Francis Picabia, Marcel Duchamp, Henri Rousseau, and Pablo Picasso. These negatives are 18 × 24 cm.
Tristan Tzara, “La Photographie a l’Envers,” from Champs Délicieux (Paris: Société générale d'impression et d'édition, 1922). Translated as “Photography Upside Down,” in Photography in the Modern Era: European Documents and Critical Writings, 1913–1940, ed. Christopher Phillips (New York: Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1989).
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