Halsman, Philippe

Latvian-American (1906-1979)


The joy and humor in the portrait photography of Philippe Halsman may have been hard-won after a difficult early life. In 1928, Halsman went on a hiking expedition with his father, who fell and died from severe head injuries. Against his claims of innocence, Halsman was sentenced to four years in prison for murder. Due to the intervention of Albert Einstein and Thomas Mann, Halsman was released early, but only on condition that he leave Austria forever. He fled to France, where he began a successful fashion photography career with Vogue, but was forced to run again when the Nazis invaded in 1940.

Thankfully, things began to look up in the United States. Halsman established fruitful relationships with Elizabeth Arden Cosmetics and Life magazine, the latter of which resulted in a record 101 cover images over the course of his career. But he is perhaps best known for the “jump portraits” that originated with Salvador Dali. Halsman’s 1948 shot “Dali Atomicus” portrays the eccentric artist, three cats and a bucket of water suspended in mid-air. Though it took Halsman 28 attempts to get the shot right, he noticed that as a subject jumped in the air and had some fun, his guard came down, yielding some priceless facial expressions that often went unseen. So, in 1951, when Halsman was commissioned by NBC to shoot some of their stars – Milton Berle, Bob Hope, Sid Caesar and more – he had them jump, thus initiating a tactic he was to use throughout the rest of his career, leaving us some of the most unique portraits of all time.