Philippe Halsman

Dali AtomicusFrom the 1940s through the 1970s, Philippe Halsman‘s sparkling portraits of celebrities, intellectuals, and politicians appeared on the covers and pages of the big picture magazines, including Look, Esquire, the Saturday Evening Post, Paris Match, and especially Life. His work also appeared in advertisements and publicity for clients like Elizabeth Arden cosmetics, NBC, Simon & Schuster, and Ford. Photographers, amateur as well as professional, admired Halsman’s stunning images. In 1958, a poll conducted by Popular Photography named Halsman one of the “World’s Ten Greatest Photographers” along with Irving Penn, Richard Avedon, Ansel Adams, Henri Cartier-Bresson, Alfred Eisenstaedt, Ernst Haas, Yousuf Karsh, Gjon Mili, and Eugene Smith. Altogether, Halsman’s images form a vivid picture of prosperous American society in the middle years of the twentieth century.

Philippe Halsman ( 2 May 1906 Riga, Latvia - 25 June 1979 New York City) was a Latvian-born American famous portrait photographer. Born to a Jewish family of Morduch (Max) Halsman, a dentist, and Ita Grintuch, a grammar school principal, in Riga, Halsman studied electrical engineering in Dresden. In September 1928, Halsman went on a hiking tour in the Austrian Alps with his father, Morduch. During this tour, Morduch died from severe head injuries. The circumstances were never completely clarified and Halsman was sentenced to 4 years imprisonment for patricide. The case provoked anti-Jewish propaganda and thus gained international publicity, and Albert Einstein and Thomas Mann wrote in support of Halsman. Halsman was finally released in 1931, under the condition that he leave Austria for good, never to return.

Halsman consequently left Austria for France. He began contributing to fashion magazines such as Vogue and soon gained a reputation as one of the best portrait photographers in France, renowned for his sharp, dark images that shunned the old soft focus look. When France was invaded, Halsman fled to Marseille and he eventually managed to obtain a U.S. visa, aided by family friend Albert Einstein (whom he later famously photographed in 1947).

Halsman had his first success in America when the cosmetics firm Elizabeth Arden used his image of model Constance Ford against the American flag in an advertising campaign for “Victory Red” lipstick. A year later in 1942 he found work with Life magazine, photographing hat designs, one of which, a portrait of a model in a Lilly Daché hat, was his first of the many covers he would do for Life.

In 1941 Halsman met the surrealist artist Salvador Dalí and they began to collaborate in the late 1940s. The 1948 work Dali Atomicusexplores the idea of suspension, depicting three cats flying, a bucket of thrown water, and Salvador Dalí in mid air. The title of the photograph is a reference to Dalí’s work Leda Atomica which can be seen in the right of the photograph behind the two cats. Halsman reported that it took 28 attempts to be satisfied with the result. Halsman and Dali eventually released a compendium of their collaborations in the 1954 book Dali’s Mustache, which features 36 different views of the artist’s distinctive mustache. Another famous collaboration between the two was In Voluptas Mors, a surrealistic portrait of Dali beside a large skull, in fact a tableau vivant composed of seven nudes. Halsman took three hours to arrange the models according to a sketch by Dali. A version of In Voluptas Mors was used subtly in the poster for the film The Silence of The Lambs, and less subtly for the film The Descent.

In 1947, he made what was to become one of his most famous photos of a mournful Albert Einstein, who during the photography session recounted his regrets about his role in the United States pursuing the atomic bomb. The photo would later be used in 1966 on a U.S. postage stamp and in 1999, on the cover of Time Magazine, when Time dubbed Einstein as “Person of the Century.”

Other celebrities photographed by Halsman include Alfred Hitchcock, Judy Garland, Winston Churchill, Marilyn Monroe, Dorothy Dandridge, and Pablo Picasso. Many of those photographs appeared on the cover of Life.

In 1952, John F. Kennedy had two photograph sittings by Halsman. The result was that one photograph from the first sitting appeared on the jacket of the original edition of Profiles in Courage. In the second sitting a photograph was used in the senatorial campaign.

In 1958 Halsman was listed in Popular Photography’s “World’s Ten Greatest Photographers”, and in 1975 he received the Life Achievement in Photography Award from the American Society of Magazine Photographers. He also held numerous large exhibitions worldwide.

The Halsman trial was dramatized in the 2007 film Jump!, in which Halsman was portrayed by Ben Silverstone.

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4 Responses to “Philippe Halsman”

  1. What a wonderfull collection of Halsman’s photos! I confess that I did not know a lot of them.

    And after taking a look on the other entries, well, my english is very poor… I liked a lot and I saw photographers that I didn’t know.

    Congratulations for your site.

    Pedro Cuadrado

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