Icons of Photography: Philippe Halsman

Philippe Halsman was born (as Filips Halsmans) in Riga, Latvia, on May 2 1906, into a prosperous, cosmopolitan Jewish family. He went on to live four lives, each of them in a different country, only two of them connected with photography – directly, anyway.

In his last, most famous life, he became ‘Halsman’ and took some of the best-known portraits – often for LIFE magazine – of at least two generations of post-war artists, actors and intellectuals. Marilyn Monroe on an exercise bench, working out with dumbbells. Vladimir Nabokov with a butterfly net, shot in such looming close-up that you feel that it’s you the viewer that the great Russian novelist is looking to net, anaesthetise and pin to his collection board.

Halsman’s first life lasted till 1928 and included studying electrical engineering in Dresden. His second life – about which he never spoke publicly – began on a mountain near Innsbruck, Austria and ended with him in jail. His father, who was hiking with him, died of head injuries. Halsman was charged with murder – in part because of (baseless) suspicions aroused by the fact that the body, in accordance with Jewish tradition, was buried within twenty-four hours. Though Halsman was clearly and demonstrably innocent, he was railroaded – by virulent, local anti-semitism – into a four-year jail sentence.

His sister, Liouba, who later became his secretary, ran a ferocious campaign for his release – supporters included Albert Einstein. By 1931, she had her brother out of jail. At which point, Halsman’s third life began: he became a successful Parisian photographer. He also met and married Yvonne Moser, who became his right-hand woman – in both work and love – right through both his third and fourth lives.

That final, fourth life began in 1941 when, as yet another Jewish European fleeing the Nazis, he got passage on the refugee boat from Lisbon to New York – again helped by Einstein. (As ever, the significance of Adolf Hitler’s influence on the course of 20th century photography should not be underestimated. Also see Helmut Newton, Sarah Moon, Robert Capa – with whom Halsman would play poker.)

His grandson, Oliver Halsman Rosenberg, wrote this about the four lives of Halsman: ‘Each of these transitions resulted in an opportunity for him to experience life in its full spectrum, and emerge redefined. His heightened connection to the universality of mankind, and deepening self-awareness, gave him the tools to create images full of profound insight into the human condition.’

His first American job was a lipstick campaign for Elizabeth Arden. By 1942, he was working for LIFE, the photojournalism magazine that dominated Americans’ views of the world for three decades. He shot 101 covers. He was a star. He was famous enough to get name-checked in Hedda Hopper’s syndicated showbiz gossip column. In 1956, LIFE came up with the stunt to send him round the world to photograph the world’s most beautiful women in seventeen countries.

Thanks to his engineering background, he was technically adept. He designed new twin-lens cameras and developed methods of image manipulation so sophisticated that they weren’t equalled until the arrival of digital technology. He was a pioneer of high-speed flash, using it for both comic and revelatory purposes in his pictures of people jumping – even managing to make Richard Nixon look human.

His 1947 photograph Dalí Atomicus – one of the early products of his long personal and professional relationship with the Spanish surrealist Salvador Dalí – took 28 attempts over four hours. Yet, as he put it, ‘the immortal photographers will be straightforward photographers, those who do not rely on tricks or special techniques’.

Immortal or not, his straightforward photography was nearly always of people – images full of life, brio and humanity. He took pictures of Churchill (from behind, at Chartwell), of Brando (ravishing and ravished-looking in a matelot T-shirt), of Duchamp (in a tree), of Chagall (with his arm round Picasso). His portrait of Einstein was used for a US stamp. His picture of Jerry Lewis and Dean Martin together is the bouncing, life-affirming one by which everyone knows and remembers the great song-and-joke duo. Slightly sniffily, The Washington Post described his sitters as the ‘bearers and epitomes of the lost world of American self-satisfaction’. As if that were a bad thing – rather than just a thing.

As you’d expect of someone with Halsman’s own tragic history, things are not always that simple.

His picture of Ava Gardner shows you just why her departure left Sinatra close to suicide. His Grace Kelly is a modern Narcissus, sickly enraptured by her own slick allure. When he photographed Marilyn Monroe in 1952, he placed her in the corner of her living room, in an angle between two walls, one dark, one pale, eyes half-closed, mouth half-open. Trapped by the viewer, perhaps. ‘I’m always running into people’s unconscious,’ Monroe once said, knowingly. Halsman’s picture – also knowingly – helped create that repetitive sensual collision. He knew what and whereof he was doing, too. His stated view was that he would encourage a female subject to think of the camera as a ‘symbol for the man she wants to please’.

He saw himself as a psychologist of the still image. ‘This fascination with the human face has never left me,’ he said. ‘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.’ His images show a grasping of the moment and an affirmation of life’s possibilities. It’s hard not to see in this a conscious – even willed – riposte to the horrors of his own earlier lives. ‘The way a photographer sees is an extension of his character,’ he said.

He taught ‘psychological portraiture’ for five years in 1970s. Taking a portrait, he thought, ‘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.’ No coincidence then that he was maybe the greatest ever photographer of eyes. Whether shooting a comic (Sid Caesar), a philosopher (Bertrand Russell) or a scientist (Robert Oppenheimer), it’s the eyes that have it.

He did commercial work, too, shooting campaigns for NBC, Simon & Schuster and Ford. When LIFE folded, in 1972, his main editorial outlet became French Vogue. He also worked for Esquire, Look and Good Housekeeping. A witty, courteous and widely liked man, he said: ‘I drifted into photography like one drifts into prostitution. First I did it to please myself, then I did it to please my friends, and eventually I did it for the money.’

He retired from taking pictures in the 1970s and died on June 25, 1979, in New York.

© Peter Silverton 2019

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