Halsman / Dalí

Musée de l'Elysée
Jan 25, 2014 5:41AM

One of Philippe Halsman’s favourite subjects was Salvador Dalí with whom he shared a unique collaboration that spanned 37 years. Their 47 sittings, combining Dalí’s talent for performance and Halsman’s technical skill and inventiveness, resulting in an impressive repertoire of “photographic ideas”. 

Focus on Dalí’s Mustache 

As Halsman explains, Dalí’s Mustache is the fruit of this marriage of the minds. They conceived this book entirely dedicated to Dalí’s mustache, and created over thirty portraits of the painter absurdly answering Halsman’s questions. 

In 1953 Halsman realised that Salvador Dalí’s expanding mustache gave him the "chance to fulfil one his most ambitious dreams yet and create an extraordinarily eccentric work". Dalí was enormously fond of his own person and of his mustache in particular, which he saw as a symbol of the power of his imagination, and was immediately thrilled at the idea. To create a “picture book” containing an interview with Salvador Dalí, Halsman reused an editorial concept he had introduced five years earlier with French actor Fernandel: a question asked of the artist was printed on one page, and the answer appeared on the following page in the form of a captioned photograph. 

For this project, it was no longer just a matter of photographic expression, but of genuine mise en scène, combining Dalí’s theatrical character with Halsman’s impressive inventiveness and technical skill. Halsman presented the book as a genuine collaboration between two artists, representing their mutual understanding. 

Halsman photographed Dalí with his 4x5 camera and his electronic flash through many sessions over a period of two years. Most of the plates in the book are portraits of the artist posing in a variety of positions, playing with his mustache in various ways, accentuated by light and framing effects. Dalí was ready to go along with any whim to create the scenes: he styles his precious mustache with the help of Hungarian wax, and agrees to take part in incongruous mises en scène, pressing his head behind a round of cheese to put the ends of his mustache through its holes, or plunging his head into a water-filled aquarium, his mouth full of milk.

As for Halsman, he put a lot of his effort into the post-production work in order to give concrete expression to their ideas. It sometimes took a laborious process to achieve images like the Mona Lisa portrait, inner conflicts, surrealism or the essence of Dalí, which not only required work on the print or negative (cutting, enlargement, deformation, double exposure) but also a montage and a new shot to create a negative of the final image. For the portrait of the artist in the form of a “soft watch”, Halsman worked around one hundred hours. He photographed Dali close up, then tacked a wet print of the image onto the edge of a table and re-photographed it at an angle that matched the angle of the original painting. He then cut it out, made a collage, and re-photographed it again—creating an image of Dali's melted face. For the photographer, it was a genuine technical challenge, which he seized with patience and success. 

Explore the exhibition "Philippe Halsman, Astonish Me!" on Artsy.

Musée de l'Elysée