Worth a Thousand Words: Understanding Philippe Halsman Through Three Iconic Pictures

Artsy Editorial
Jan 22, 2014 3:40PM

In 1958, Popular Photography named Philippe Halsman one of the “World’s Ten Greatest Photographers” in the company of Irving Penn, Richard Avedon, Ansel Adams, Henri Cartier-Bresson, Alfred Eisenstaedt, Ernst Haas, Yousef Karsh, Gjon Mili, and W. Eugene Smith. Over 50 years later, the photographer is something of an enigma, despite having photographed the greater majority of the 20th century’s celebrities and intellectual elite—Brigitte Bardot, Salvador Dalí, Marilyn Monroe, Albert Einstein, Woody Allen, and The Duke and Dutchess of Wales, to name a few. To better understand Halsman, we offer a closer look at three of the late photographer’s most iconic portraits:

Marilyn Monroe, New York City:

Halsman earned a reputation for a bizarre—but consistent—ritual: asking his sitters to jump. The story goes that in 1952, while unwinding with a drink after photographing the Ford family in honor of the automobile company’s 50th birthday, Halsman gathered the nerve to ask Mrs. Henry Edsel Ford to jump for his camera—and the rest was history. In the few years prior, Halsman had photographed comedians like Groucho Marx and Bob Hope mid-air, but it was not before this tipsy confidence that Halsman employed the tactic on his regular subjects. He called his technique “jumpology,” which is chronicled in his book Philippe Halsman’s Jump Book, that features a jumping Grace Kelly, Brigitte Bardot, Richard Nixon, and of course, Marilyn Monroe. “When you ask a person to jump, his attention is mostly directed toward the act of jumping and the mask falls so that the real person appears,” he once said. [Source]

Tippi Hedren, star of Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds:

An article by The Guardianties Philippe Halsman to Alfred Hitchcock—beyond the fact that Halsman collaborated with the artist—by the theme of the “persecuted innocent.” How so? At age 22, Halsman was hiking with his father in the Austrian Alps when his father tragically fell to his death—and Halsman was convicted of murder, sans evidence, “in a bizarre and anti-Semitic response to a series of unsolved crimes in the area.” After two years in prison, Albert Einstein was among those who vied for his release; Einstein also later helped Halsman escape to the United States to flee the Nazis. Similarly, Alfred Hitchcock fled to the U.S. during the war on a run from the British class system, and his film, The Wrong Man, chronicles a man’s (Cary Grant’s) wrongful conviction.

Spanish painter Salvador Dalí:

Philippe Halsman and Salvador Dalí first met in New York City in 1941—and so began a 37-year friendship and collaboration between the two artists. As new arrivals from Paris (their moves to the U.S. fell within months of one another), Halsman and Dalí’s paths crossed when Halsman was hired by Black Star Agency to photograph costumes for the Ballet Russes production of “Labyrinth” at the Metropolitan Opera House. The costumes had been designed by Dali, and when Halsman photographed the prima ballerina on a nearby rooftop, it was clear the two shared artistic sensibilities. Soon, it was Dalí who stood before Halsman’s lens—and for decades thereafter. “An elating game,” Halsman wrote, “creating images that did not exist, except in our imaginations. Whenever I needed a striking protagonist for one of my wild ideas, Dalí would graciously oblige. Whenever Dalí thought of a photograph so strange that it seemed impossible to produce, I tried to find a solution.” [Source]

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