In this edition of our Masters of Photography series, we discuss renowned portrait photographer and technical innovator Philippe Halsman.
Born in 1906 in Riga, Latvia, Halsman’s career spanned four decades. His unique use of imagination, cropping and sharp focus ensured a prolific career across reportage and portraiture. Halsman’s intention and goal was to explore the human face ‘with psychological depth and honesty’.
What started as a hobby after the discovery of his father’s old camera aged fifteen turned into a ‘photography virus’ from which he never recovered. Self-taught, Halsman experimented with both style and technical application, utilising skills from his early training as an engineering student. In 1934, thirteen years after first discovering the camera, he opened his first portrait studio in Montparnasse.
It was during his time in Paris that he encountered a problem capturing the spontaneity of his subjects within the constraints of a camera’s timing. He designed and produced, with the help of a cabinetmaker, the 9 x 12 cm twin-lens reflex camera. This technical prowess and ingenuity coupled with his unmistakable style allowed Halsman to build a career in the heart of Paris.
The Nazi occupation of France and fall of Paris in 1940 brought this period to an end, and Halsman fled with his family to the United States. Overcoming initial difficulties owing to his Latvian passport, Halsman was able to secure a Visa with the recommendation of Albert Einstein, joining a growing number of artists, writers and intellectuals fleeing persecution.
Establishing himself in America was difficult at first, but a break came with the ‘Victory Red’ campaign featuring Connie Ford for Elizabeth Arden. From this, Halsman embarked on what can only be described as a prolific career, including shooting 101 covers for LIFE magazine, a record which is yet to be beaten by any photographer.
His work took him across the globe, where he photographed famous names, such as Judy Garland, Frank Sinatra, Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall. Later collaborations included Marilyn Monroe, Audrey Hepburn and Alfred Hitchcock.
Central to Halsman’s work was his relationship with Salvador Dali. After meeting in 1941, they worked together for 37 years, developing a truly unique and exciting photographic style. What emerged from the partnership were extraordinary experiments with light, shape, form and content, all punctuated by Dali’s iconic moustache and Halsman’s imagination.
An integral part of Halsman’s legacy is his ‘jump’ imagery, where sitters are encouraged to quite literally jump for the photographer. The wit and energy displayed in these images epitomise Halsman’s exploration of the human form.
Speaking in 1972, Halsman explained his motivation, ‘Every face I see seems to hide … the mystery of another human being’.
As well as his imagery, Halsman was able to use his position as president of the American Society of Magazine Photographers (ASMP) to advocate for the protection of the creative and professional rights of photographers. He continued working up until his death in 1979, just months after a comprehensive exhibition of his work was launched in the United States.