Philippe Halsman: American Portrait Photographer to the Stars

Philippe Halsmann. Photo by Irene Halsman.

Philippe Halsman was born in Riga, Latvia, on May 2, 1906. He discovered an old camera in the family attic at the age of fifteen, bought glass plates and took up photography. Like many other photographers, when he first saw this image appear in the darkroom set, it was a life-changing moment and he knew what he was going to do with his life.

He became the family photographer and in addition to family vacations and vacations, he spent his time and money photographing friends and friends of friends.

His sister moved to Paris to study and married a Frenchman. Attending their wedding, he fell in love with Paris and decided to settle there to continue his engineering studies. He was much more interested in art and literature than technology and mechanics, so after graduating he announced that he was a professional photographer. He bought a second-hand photoflood light and enlarger to go with his old camera and launched his career.

He quickly became famous in Paris for his creative and strong portraits of actors, writers and musicians. He married his apprentice, Yvonne Moser. Soon, Philippe and Yvonne Halsman form a famous team of photographers in pre-war Paris. He bought another projector, a light stand and a Zeiss Tessar lens. Ultra-sharp images and creative two-light setups have become his signature.

A self-portrait of Philippe Halsman.

Halsman camera

Halsman soon realized that in the seconds he had wasted loading the film holder and pulling the black slide, he had missed the decisive moment of a photograph. This led him to design a 9×12 cm twin-lens reflex. There were a number of TLR cameras that he designed and built or sold as “The Halsman” camera, including 4×5 TLRs.

“The camera that I built myself is a very important part of my technique,” ​​Halsman said. “My head is covered by the focus cloth, I’m looking at the subject through the lens. From the model’s point of view, the lifeless mechanism of the camera suddenly becomes almost alive.

“Later, in the darkroom, I sometimes have a new idea. The creative process doesn’t end with the shot, it also continues with the making of the print, because by altering the tonal values ​​you can alter the mood or accentuate the statement you intended to print. origin in the studio.

He also used Hasselblads, Rolleiflexes, and other twin-lens and single-lens reflex cameras. He wanted to be able to continuously see the subject through the viewfinder while he operated the shutter.

The Second World War

When war broke out, he was able to send his wife and eldest daughter Irene to the United States. When the Germans invaded Paris, he fled south with many other Parisians to Marseille. There he discovered that he would not be allowed to travel to the United States because he had a Latvian passport. The United States allowed only eighteen Latvians a year to enter the country and there was a seven-year wait. Because he knew Albert Einstein, he asked his wife to contact Einstein to see if he could help her. Einstein did help, and Halsman was soon on his way to New York.

Albert Einstein. Photo by Philippe Halsmann.

Halsman arrived in New York on November 10, 1940. Although he was a famous photographer in France, he was unknown in New York. He spoke five languages, but English was not one of them, so he was at a great disadvantage. Her breakthrough came when her photo of an aspiring model named Connie Ford was picked up by beauty company Elizabeth Arden and used for a lipstick ad. The picture won the Art Directors Medal, and his career took off in America.

Salvador Dali

Halsman met Salvador Dali in the early 1940s and they became lifelong friends. Over the years, Halsman photographed Dali many times.

Spanish painter Salvador Dali. Photo by Philippe Halsmann.

One of Halsman’s most famous images of Dali was Dali Atomicus in 1948 — photography with cats, water and a chair.

Dali Atomicus. 1948. Photo by Philippe Halsman.

Hearing Halsman describe this photoshoot in person was hilarious. In the mid-1970s, the local college in my town held a series of lectures called “The Masters of Photography.” They invited several famous photographers of the time to speak at the monthly public event. I attended all the events and got to meet many of the most famous photographers of the 20th century. The evening with Philippe Halsman was one of my favorites.

He described throwing water in the air while his wife held the chair, his sister Liouba and her daughters were the “cat wrestlers”. It took 26 shots to get this image. This meant 26 times wiping the floor, 26 throwing and 26 catching cats.

The original unedited version of Dali Atomicus in which the support strings are still visible. Photo by Philippe Halsmann.

jump book

Early in his career, he made a habit of blowing up his portrait subjects. It was usually the last photo of the session. Over the years he made hundreds of images of famous people jumping which he published in a series of books called the jump book.

Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis. Photo by Philippe Halsmann.

“Starting in the early 1950s, I asked every famous or important person I photographed to jump for me,” Halsman said. “I was motivated by genuine curiosity. After all, life taught us to control and disguise our facial expressions, but it didn’t teach us to control our jumps.

“I wanted to see famous people revealing their ambition or lack of ambition, their smugness or their insecurity, and many other traits in one leap.”

Using the leap as a pose to better understand the psyche of his subjects was a psychological tool that Halsman called Jumpology.

Philippe Halsman jumping with Marilyn Monroe. Photo by Philippe Halsmann.

Life Magazine

A fashion story about ladies’ hats led to a Life magazine cover. He soon produced portraits for Life magazine. In the post-war period, having a photo on the cover of Life magazine was the highest achievement a photographer could have. Halsman finally got 101 Life covers, more than any other photographer. The 100th cover was by Johnny Carson in 1970, and Life publishes an insert presenting a self-portrait of Philippe and Yvonne under the title “The king of blankets draws his 100th”. This portrait of the duo was actually the photograph the Halsmans made for their 1969 Christmas card.

Humphrey Bogart. Photo by Philippe Halsmann.
Marilyn Monroe. Photo by Philippe Halsmann.
John F Kennedy. Photo by Philippe Halsmann.
Audrey Hepburn. Photo by Philippe Halsmann.
Louis Armstrong. Photo by Philippe Halsmann.

In Halsman’s description of his work, he said, “It is important to remember that a seated portrait is an extremely artificial situation. Very few people are able to immediately lose their self-awareness and behave in front of the camera as if it weren’t there. In almost all cases, the photographer must help the subject reveal themselves. In many sessions, I felt that what I was saying about was more important than what I was doing with my camera and my lights.

“My great interest in life is 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 is made up of an infinite number of different images, which of these images should we try to capture? For me, the answer has always been the image that most completely reveals both the outside and the inside of the subject.

“Such an image is called a portrait. A true portrait should, now and a hundred years from now, bear witness to how that person looked and what kind of human being he was.

Philippe Halsman died in New York on June 25, 1979, at the age of 73 after a brief illness.


Most of the information in this article comes from the book, Portraits of Halsmann by Yvonne Halsman.


Picture credits: All photos by Philippe Halsman © Halsman Archives

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