Philippe Halsman: Mises en scène

Musée de l'Elysée
Jan 25, 2014 5:35AM

Philippe Halsman was often commissioned to photograph the contemporary art scene for magazines including dance, cinema and theatre. Collaborations with artists were important in Halsman’s career and inspired performances resulting in picture stories or striking individual images. 

Focus on 'Jumpology'

In 1950, Halsman invented 'jumpology', a new way of creating spontaneous, authentic portraits: “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”. Over a period of ten years, Halsman created an extraordinary gallery of portraits of American society.

Containing over 170 portraits, Philippe Halsman's Jump Book illustrated a new “psychological portrait” approach developed by Philippe Halsman in the 1950s. His method was systematic. During commissioned work, at the end of shooting sessions Halsman would ask his subjects if they would agree to take part in his personal project, and then the jumps were done on the spot. In this way he managed to photograph hundreds of jumps. Producing these shots was in fact simple: his equipment was limited to a Rolleiflex camera and an electronic flash, and as he pointed out, the only constraint was the height of the ceiling. 

Although these portraits are characterized by their light- heartedness, Halsman viewed 'jumpology' as a new scientific tool for psychology. While the subject was concentrating on his jump, “the mask” fell, and it was this moment that the photographer needed to capture. Over the time that he was conducting this experiment, Halsman noticed the great diversity of the various participants’ postures, and discerned in these gestures—leg positions, arm positions, facial expressions and other details—revealing signs of their character, expressed unwillingly.

The arrangement of the portraits in Philippe Halsman's Jump Book illustrated these views. Halsman made a distinction in the form of two corpuses. First he presented influential personalities from different fields (political, industrial, scientific, theological, literary, etc...) resulting in a gallery of unexpected portraits that contrasted with their official image. For this project, Halsman also enjoyed the colla- boration of actors, singers, dancers, etc... Conscious of the special character of their performances, Halsman assembled their images in a second part, categorized by discipline. This organization was punctuated by various themes like American flamboyance, British reserve, and the eloquence of actresses’ legwork. The layout played with different photograph formats and assemblages.

Although it only presented well-known personalities, the publication nevertheless encouraged the democratization of this practice: it ended with a photograph of Philippe Halsman jumping on a beach, with a caption asking: “How do you jump?” 

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

Musée de l'Elysée