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Out of the Past: Philippe Halsman

By Jill Waterman


PHOTOS © PHILIPPE HALSMAN/MAGNUM PHOTOS
Leaping Lizards: Dali Atomicus (1948), an image made in collaboration with the famous artist Salvador Dali, for which Halsman shot 28 frames in order to be satisfied with the resulting photograph.


Philippe Halsman is best known today for the inventive images he made in collaboration with surrealist painter Salvador Dali, but he was equally renowned for his psychological portraiture, as well as for shooting a record 101 LIFE magazine covers, more so than any other artist.

Born in Riga, Latvia, Halsman studied engineering in Germany before moving to Paris, where he met with early success as a portraitist. When the Germans invaded, Halsman sent his family to America but was unable to gain passage for himself until Albert Einstein petitioned for an emergency visa on his behalf. He arrived in New York in 1940 speaking five languages, none of them English.

In Halsman’s quest for the emotive portrait, he was equally a master of light. His earliest lighting tests are described in this excerpt from the Halsman Web site: “I worked and experimented with this one light for months in an effort to explore all its possibilities—how the light in different positions affected the mood and feeling of the picture, and seemingly changed the features of the sitter. Through this kind of experimentation I gained a basic understanding, which has remained with me all my life.”

In the early 1950s, Halsman began asking every famous or important person he photographed to jump for a picture, with the aim of revealing in the resulting image “their ambition or their lack of it, their self-importance or their insecurity and many other traits,” he explained. “Life has taught us to control and disguise our facial expressions, but it has not taught us to control our jumps.”

Halsman jumping with Marilyn Monroe at the end of a 1958 portrait shoot

© Philippe Halsman/Magnum Photos

Named as one of the World’s Ten Greatest Photographers in 1958, Halsman’s assignments brought him face-to-face with many of the 20th century’s leading statesmen, scientists, artists and entertainers, whom he photographed until shortly before his passing in 1979. Halsman said of his work, “My great interest in life has been people.

A human being changes continuously throughout life. His thoughts and moods change, his expressions and even his features change. And here we come to the crucial problem of portraiture. If the likeness of a human being consists of an infinite number of different images, which one of these images should we try to capture? For me, the answer has always been, the image that reveals most completely both the exterior and the interior of the subject. Such a picture is called a portrait.” 

In 2014, a traveling retrospective will debut in Lausanne, Switzerland, before traveling to Rotterdam, the Netherlands; Essen, Germany; and Paris, France, among other possible sites. This will be the first retrospective of Halsman’s work in Europe. To learn more, visit the archive here.

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