In Conversation with Philippe Halsman’s Daughter, Irene

Irene Halsman, daughter of world famous photographer Philippe Halsman, and co-director of the Halsman Archive was born in Paris and worked for many years as an art teacher. I was lucky enough to speak with her about the Halsman limited editions we are making available in partnership with Magnum Photos, as well as Halsman’s working method and the new Halsman “Astonish Me” exhibition at Musée de l’Elysée, Lausanne, Switzerland opening January 29, 2014 and traveling to the Jeu de Paume, Paris, and other venues in Europe.

Christine Kuan: Your father was born in 1906 and photographed some of the most important people of the 20th century—Albert Einstein, Richard Nixon, Marilyn Monroe, and Salvador Dalí. How did he become a photographer?

Irene Halsman: Well, when Philippe got to Paris he was very poor. He was a self-taught photographer in a little room, doing everything with one light. He began by making portraits of actors and writers, and doing stories for coiffure “hairstyles” magazines to pay the bills. In nine years he became Paris’s most famous portrait photographer. Later when the Nazis invaded Paris, he escaped to America. He was given a visa along with other artists and intellectuals with help from Albert Einstein and Eleanor Roosevelt.

CK: Tell us about the “Astonish Me” exhibition opening next week at Musée de l’Elysée. What is special about this exhibition?

IH: We’ve been working on the show for three years, and Sam Stourdzé, the director and curator of the show, wanted to show Philippe’s working process. Philippe was very interested in psychology, and he had two sides, his serious side and his playful, humorous side where he would like to exercise his imagination. For the show, Sam and co-curator Anne Lacoste, went through the archive and picked out pictures that led to the making of the famous images, such as those in the book Dalí’s Moustache. All these photos were done before Photoshop. Philippe was a perfectionist. Philippe did all of his own printing; he was a master printer, never sent anything out to a lab. For one of the photos, he had Dali’s head in a tank of water, and in Dalí’s mouth was a gulp of milk so that at the right moment when he released the milk in a tank of water, it looked like an atomic explosion. Imagination and forethought—that’s what’s in the show. There are 300 works in the show throughout three floors in a beautiful 18th century chateau.

CK: Tell us about each of the limited editions we’re making available with Magnum Photos.

IH: 1) Dalí. Philippe met Dalí in 1941 and worked with him for the next 37 years. There was no competition. Dalí did not want to be a photographer, Halsman did not want to be a painter. They were really having fun with photography, coming up with inventive and unique ideas. This magnifying glass photo was done in 1943. It was a really young and handsome Dalí. My father shot three photos of Dalí with the magnifying glass on his eye, nose, and mouth: See no evil, smell no evil, taste no evil.

2) Cocteau. Cocteau was a jack of all trades; he was a poet, filmmaker, painter, writer, draftsman, made sculpture, did everything. Father once photographed him with six arms. In this picture, Cocteau is "painting" the beautiful Ricki Soma, later the wife of John Huston and mother of Anjelica Huston. The dancer, Leo Coleman, is lying at the bottom holding the frame. In 1949 Philippe and Cocteau got together and worked an entire night, coming up with many amazing images.

3) Aquacade. This photo was for a LIFE assignment covering an international meet for underwater ballet swimmers. He photographed all the wheels and complicated tricks underwater, but the picture he liked most was when the Canadian team went up for air and were treading water.

4) Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis. Philippe believed that when the subjects are fighting gravity—jumping—the true person appears. Philippe Halsman’s Jump Book (1959) has shots of celebrities, politicians, artists, all jumping. Philippe felt you could read a person’s character from their jump, saying it’s better than a Rorschach test. Another photo from this series became one of Halsman’s 101 LIFE covers.

5) Tippi Hedren. This was a LIFE shoot on the set of “The Birds.” Philippe was quite good friends with Hitchcock, and Hitchcock loved blondes. Tippi is the mother of Melanie Griffiths and adores animals. The composition of this photo is really drawn from the time Philippe spent in his youth at the great museums of Europe, where he learned about paintings and lighting.

Photo of Philippe Halsman and Irene Halsman.

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