From the 1940s through the 1970s, Philippe Halsman’s sparkling portraits of celebrities, intellectuals, and politicians appeared on the covers and pages of the big picture magazines, including Look, Esquire, the Saturday Evening Post, Paris Match, and especially Life. His work also appeared in advertisements and publicity for clients like Elizabeth Arden cosmetics, NBC, Simon & Schuster, and Ford. Photographers, amateur as well as professional, admired Halsman’s stunning images. In 1958, a poll conducted by Popular Photography named Halsman one of the "World’s Ten Greatest Photographers" along with Irving Penn, Richard Avedon, Ansel Adams, Henri Cartier-Bresson, Alfred Eisenstaedt, Ernst Haas, Yousuf Karsh, Gjon Mili, and Eugene Smith. Altogether, Halsman’s images form a vivid picture of prosperous American society in the middle years of the twentieth century. "Philippe Halsman: A Retrospective" is the first historical survey of his work.
Philippe Halsman (1906-1979) was born in Riga, Latvia. He studied engineering in Dresden before moving to Paris, where he set up his photographic studio in 1932. Halsman’s bold, spontaneous style won him many admirers. His portraits of actors and authors appeared on book jackets and in magazines; he worked with fashion (especially hat designs), and filled commissions for private clients. By 1936, Halsman was known as one of the best portrait photographers in France.
Halsman’s career came to a dramatic halt in the summer of 1940, when Hitler’s troops invaded Paris. His wife, daughter, sister, and brother-in-law, who all held French passports, immigrated to America, but as a Latvian citizen, Philippe Halsman could not obtain a visa. For several long months he waited in Marseilles along with many others who were forced to escape fascist Europe. Finally, through the intervention of Albert Einstein (who had met Halsman’s sister in the 1920s), Halsman obtained permission to enter the United States, and he arrived in brand new York in November 1940 with little more than his camera.
Halsman’s big break came when he met Connie Ford, a striking young style who agreed to pose in exchange for prints for her portfolio. When publicists at Elizabeth Arden saw Halsman’s photograph of Ford against an American flag, they used the image to launch a national campaign for "Victory Red" lipstick. A year later, in the fall of 1942, Life asked Halsman to shoot a story on brand new hat design. To Halsman’s delight, his portrait of the style smiling through a feathery brim landed on the cover. One hundred more covers followed before the magazine ceased weekly publication in 1972.
When Halsman began working for Life, the magazine was only six years old, and photojournalism was still a brand new field. Before the existence of Life and its competitors, Americans learned about the world from newspapers, radio, and newsreels. But the brand new picture magazines published pages filled with bright, dramatic photographs, bringing Americans vivid information that no other media could match. In the spirit of a variety show, or a world’s fair, magazines combined stories about international politics, everyday life, news events, celebrities, exotic scenery, and humor to prove that "so much of the world, so judiciously selected, had never been seen before in one place." Today, to understand the significance of those great magazines, we need only look at the many forms of mass media that have come to replace them. currently, we find photographs on television and billboards; in special publications devoted to news, people, fashion, or sports; in newspapers; in museums and galleries; and on the Internet. And, ironically, the more places there are to see photographs, the harder it is to attract viewers. But in 1942, when Philippe Halsman’s portrait simply appeared on the cover of Life and immediately reached a large, united audience.
In Paris, Halsman studied the work of other artists and photographers, especially the surrealists, from whom he learned to make images that surprised his viewers. By including homely, and ultimately disturbing, details, he gave his subjects memorable tension. Through subtle lighting, sharp focus, and close cropping, he turned formal fashion shots into serious investigations of character. When Halsman posed NBC comedians against bare white paper, eliminating all defining context, their isolation made them look both frail and funny. Most important of all, from the surrealists’ exploration of the erotic unconscious, Halsman learned how to combine glamour, sex, and wholesome energy in one portrait. This unusual ability made him Life’s favorite photographer for sensual stars like Marilyn Monroe and Brigitte Bardot. Halsman’s sympathy for surrealism also led to his long, productive friendship with Salvador Dali. Halsman met Dali on assignment in 1941, and over the next three decades they became partners on many projects, including a series of playful tableaux that had all the disturbing irrationality of dreams or a painting by Dali. Their most notable production was "Dali Atomicus", in which the artist, his canvas, furniture, cats, and water all appear suspended in air.
Over the course of his career, Halsman enjoyed comparing his work to that of a not bad psychologist who regards his subjects with special insight. With his courtly manners and European accent, Halsman also fit the popular stereotype at a time when Americans regarded psychology with fascinated skepticism. In fact, Halsman was proud of his ability to reveal the character of his sitters. As he explained, "It can’t be done by pushing the person into position or arranging his head at a certain angle. It must be accomplished by provoking the victim, amusing him with jokes, lulling him with silence, or asking impertinent questions which his best friend would be afraid to voice."
In the spring of 1952, Halsman put his signature technique to work when Life sent him to Hollywood to photograph Marilyn Monroe. Halsman asked Monroe to stand in a corner, and placed his camera directly in front of her. Later, he recalled that she looked "as if she had been pushed into the corner cornered with no way to escape." Then Halsman, his assistant, and Life’s reporter staged a "fiery" competition for Monroe’s attention. "Surrounded by three admiring men she smiled, flirted, giggled and wriggled with delight. During the hour I kept her cornered she enjoyed herself royally, and I . . . took between 40 and 50 pictures."
In this widely familiar portrait, Monroe wears a white evening gown and stands with her back against two walls, one dark, the other light, her eyes half closed and her dark, lipsticked mouth partly open. Yet Halsman deftly avoided any explicit representation of the true subject of the picture. Using the euphemistic language of the time, Halsman’s assistant admired the photographer’s ability to make "suggestive" pictures of beautiful women which still showed "not bad taste," emphasizing "expression" rather than "physical assets." And then the assistant added, "Halsman is very adept at provoking the expression he wants."
In 1950, NBC asked Halsman to photograph many of its popular comedians. Milton Berle, Ed Wynn, Sid Caesar, Groucho Marx, Bob Hope, Red Skelton, and many others came to Halsman’s studio, where they performed while he captured their antics on film. A single session could generate two or three hundred pictures. When Halsman compared these comic images to more traditional portraits, he found that comedians often jumped and always stayed in character. Desperation (and not bad humor) finally drove him to ask others to jump for his camera when the Ford Motor Company commissioned him to make an official family photograph in honor of the company’s fiftieth anniversary. Halsman spent a long, tiring session with nine edgy adults and eleven restless children. Afterward, Halsman’s irrepressible humor inspired him to ask matriarch Mrs. Edsel Ford, "May I take a picture of you jumping?’" The astonished Mrs. Ford replied, "You want me to jump with my high heels?" Next, her daughter-in-law, Mrs. Henry Ford II, requested a turn. The "jump" pictures had surprising charm, and over the next six years, Halsman asked many clients to jump for him. Van Cliburn, Edward R. Murrow, and Herbert Hoover declined Halsman’s invitation, but most people realized they had nothing to lose. (Some gained considerably, like the suddenly buoyant and likable Vice President Richard Nixon, who jumped for Halsman in the White House.) Halsman claimed the jumps revealed character that was otherwise hidden. "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."
Halsman also pursued this project to discover something about himself. "I assure you that often, before approaching the person, my heart would beat, and I would have to fight down all my inhibitions in order to address this request to my subject. At every time when the subject agreed to jump, it was for me like a kind of victory." How did Halsman persuade so many to abandon their composure for his camera? Somehow, he managed to convince each one that the risk was all his own.
Like many who escaped Hitler’s Europe, Philippe Halsman rarely discussed the past. He rightly insisted that his most important work took place in America, and in many ways his adopted country became his subject. One typical review noted his patriotic flair, praising Halsman’s "unsanctimonious and immensely intense portrayal of American bounce." From a historian’s perspective, it seems clear that Halsman invented a glowing image of the nation as he saw it, using light, persuasion, nerve, imagination, psychology, and experience. This place and these faces are his creation.
Halsman’s perpetual quest for hidden truth also recalls his personal history as an artist and a refugee. Halsman knew that the effort to establish one’s identity had significance far beyond the needs of the celebrity marketplace. "This fascination with the human face has never left me. . . . Every face I see seems to hide and sometimes, fleetingly, to reveal the mystery of another human being. . . . Capturing this revelation became the goal and passion of my life."
Curator of Photographs
National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution