Philippe Halsman Profile
Philippe Halsman was born in Riga, Latvia, in 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.
His 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. His father, who was hiking with him, died of head injuries and Halsman was charged with murder. Though 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. She had her brother out of jail by 1931, at which point, his third life began. He became a successful Parisian photographer. He also met and married Yvonne Moser, who became his right-hand woman right through his third and fourth lives – in both work and love, that is. His final life began in 1941 when he got passage on the refugee boat from Lisbon to New York – again helped by Einstein.
“Each of these transitions resulted in an opportunity for him to experience life in its full spectrum, and emerge redefined,” wrote his grandson, Oliver Halsman Rosenberg. “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-based magazine that dominated Americans’ views of the world for three decades. He shot 101 covers. He was extremely technically adept thanks to his engineering background. He was a pioneer of high-speed flash, which he used to both comic and revelatory intent in his pictures of people jumping. Even Richard Nixon looks human. 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. His 1947 photograph Dalí Atomicus – one of the earlier fruits 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, humanity. He took pictures of Churchill (from behind, at Chartwell), of Brando (ravishing and ravished-looking in a matelot T-shirt), of Nabokov (with butterfly net). His portrait of Einstein was used for a US stamp. The Washington Post described his sitters, slightly sniffily, as the “bearers and epitomes of the lost world of American self-satisfaction”. But, as you’d expect of someone with Halsman’s personal history, it’s not that simple. His shot 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. “I’m always running into people’s unconscious,” Monroe once said, knowingly. Halsman’s picture – knowingly – helped create that repetitive sensual collision. “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. 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 shot campaigns for NBC, Simon & Schuster and Ford. He worked for Esquire, French Vogue, Look and Good Housekeeping. He retired in the early 1970s and died on June 25 1979 in New York.
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