Philippe Halsman American, b. Latvia, 1906-1979
Philippe Halsman, who came to photography through an interest in psychology, believed that making a successful portrait often depended more on what was said to the sitter than what was done with the camera. Throughout his career, he photographed the most influential cultural and political figures of his time. In addition to his accomplishments in portraiture, Halsman is known for whimsical, animated tableaux that include such fantastic elements as levitating furniture, flying cats, and suspended streams of water. One of his best loved publications, Philippe Halsman's Jump Book (1959), features famous personalities caught in midair.
Leaving his native Latvia as a teenager to study electrical engineering at the Technische Hochschule in Dresden (1924-28), Halsman then moved to Paris to pursue a life in the arts. Beginning as a poet, he soon turned to photography and established a studio on the Left Bank where he worked on freelance projects for the French magazines Vogue, Vu, and Voilà. Just before German troops descended on Paris in 1940, he obtained an emergency visa with the help of Albert Einstein and left for New York, becoming a naturalized citizen nine years later. Halsman's bold graphic style, characterized by technical perfection and the penetrating power of its subjects, soon brought him great success in the United States—he was the only photographer to make the cover of Life magazine more than 100 times.
Among Halsman's numerous commendations is a Life Achievement Award from the American Society of Magazine Photographers in New York (1975), an organization that he served as president in 1944 and 1954. Other awards include the Prize of Popular Photography, New York (1958), the Newhouse Prize (1963), and the Golden Plate Award of the American Academy of Achievement (1967). Halsman taught photography at the Famous Photographers School in Westport, Connecticut (1969-79), and the New School for Social Research, New York (1971).
Halsman's taste for the surreal inspired several collaborations with his longtime acquaintance, the flamboyant artist Salvador Dali. Their book, Dali's Mustache: A Photographic Interview with Salvador Dali, was published in 1954. Other well-known books on Halsman include The Frenchman: A Photographic Interview with Fernandel (1950), The Candidate (1952), Halsman on the Creation of Photographic Ideas (1961), Halsman: Sight and Insight (1972), Halsman (1979), and Halsman Portraits (1983).
Though he struggled in later years with bouts of depression and poor health, Halsman continued to work on portraits and commercial assignments. In 1979, shortly before his death, the International Center of Photography, New York, organized his first retrospective exhibition. A.W.