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Philippe Halsman

Photographing Ideas.

He is a Latvian - American photographer who revolutionised the way of taking photography of his time. He was a person who had always clear that through technical knowledge of the medium and experimentation inside and outside the studio, he would be able to create his own photographic style. And he got it… both to make the most intimate portraits, and to make the most surreal photographs that could cross his mind, he succeeded.

But let's start at the beginning to understand who this photographer was and why he has gone down in history as one of the most influential photographers in the world.

On his website we can find his biography, a really exciting story, where he tells us, in first person, his origins. ‘My father was a dentist, and my mother gave up her profession as a teacher when I was born. This event, so important for me, happened on May 2, 1906, in Riga, Latvia. Riga was a highly civilised old city of 300,000 inhabitants. It had museums, an opera, three repertory theatres, and a ballet. I had only one sister, Liouba, a few years younger than I, and we were very close. Our summer vacations were spent with our parents in Europe. Before I was eighteen, thanks to these travels, I was familiar with most of the important museums in Europe – where I was particularly affected by the portraits’ (1).

He started to be interested in photography casually, when he found his father's old camera in his attic. At that time it was a photo camera that used glass plates to reveal the image, and with only 15 years old he bought a book to learn how to use it. Her model was her sister and in order to reveal the glass plates, he set up a dark room in the bathroom of his house. Photography became his favourite hobby, and he became the photographer of his family and friends.

At 18 he went to Dresden, Germany, to study electrical engineering, however art and literature interested him much more. ‘I was more interested in art and literature than my fellow students were. In comparison, mechanics and technique seemed dry to me. I had successfully passed my exams, but unlike most of my colleagues I could not repair a motor or a watch. More and more my thoughts turned to photography. I felt the urge to take pictures, to experiment, to create. Photography seemed to me still unexplored, an art at the very beginning of its growth’.

Her sister Liouba, who studied arts in Paris, fell in love with a young Frenchman and soon after, they were married. When Philippe went to the wedding he was fascinated by all the art that was in this city, so he decided to move to the French capital.

At first he was living in a hotel room, where despite the limited space, he set up his photo studio, bought a photoflood lamp and spent months experimenting with the different effects that light could have on people's portraits. A few months later, he took a second light and a new lens, this time a Zeiss Tessar that allowed him to have perfectly sharp photographs, a different feature in his style, since the photographs that were taken at this time were still slightly blurred.

After a while, in order to have more space, Philippe moved to a larger apartment in the heart of Montparnase, which in the 1930s was considered the artistic center of Paris. As a photographer and artist, he decided that among his photographs he should have the portrait of the writers that he admired the most. He went to visit the writer André Gide and proposed to him to do a portrait. During the photo session he realised that every time Gide managed to have an interesting posture to photograph, and he was ready to take the photo, the writer changed his posture, and missed unrepeatable moments, something that filled him with frustration because the same thing happened to him over and over again. At night, he couldn't sleep thinking about what happened….‘I finally realised that the three seconds which preceded the taking of the pictures had to be reduced to zero’.

To overcome this problem, Philippe decided that it would be best to design his own camera himself and reduce the shooting time. He designed a dual-lens reflex camera that produced larger 9x12cm negatives. ‘I found an old cabinetmaker, the grandson of the cabinetmaker who made the first camera for Daguerre. With delicate craftsmanship he implemented my design using the finest mahogany wood. I now had an extremely useful tool with two matched 210mm Tessar lenses, a tool that to my knowledge nobody else possessed’.

Not only did he produce portraits but could also capture the personality of his models through his lens. Halsman became known in Paris for his personal style and was visited by artists and writers. He worked for different fashion magazines of the time, including Vogue, and was able to make exhibitions with very good reviews.

Madame Muth. Paris, 1938.

Thanks to his growing fame, one day a young French woman named Yvonne appeared at his studio to ask him if he could be her apprentice. Philippe accepted, and after a year working together, she became a freelance photographer. Two years later, they married and had a girl.

Shortly after, World War II will begin, and the Nazis began bombing Paris. Halsman was able to send his family to the United States along with his sister and his husband. But he could not get the American visa because he did not have French nationality. His friend Albert Einstein interceded for him, and he was added to the list of European writers and artists who received visas from the Emergency Rescue Committee, organized by Mrs. Eleanor Roosevelt, and was able to leave Europe to start a new life in America.

He arrived in New York on November 10, 1940. He was able to speak five languages ​​but not English, he had no friends, no money and almost nobody had heard about his work. He had to live with his family in a pension room. He got a job at a photography agency but money and allowances were scarce, it was not enough for them to live well… until one day he met Connie Ford, an 18-year-old girl who was beginning his modelling career. ‘For me it symbolized everything that I liked in America: the youth, the beauty, and the strength of this new country…. 'I decided to make a photograph which I could call The American Profile. I bought myself an American flag made of paper. My lighting consisted of two ordinary floodlights. When Connie came to our furnished room I put the flag on the floor, and she lay down with her head on it… Connie liked the picture and put it into her portfolio. Months later, she showed her album to the beauty products tycoon Elizabeth Arden, who decided on the spot that this was the picture she was looking for to advertise her 'Victory Red' lipstick. Connie Ford became famous overnight. This was my first real breakthrough in America. The photograph won the Art Directors Club Medal and opened many doors for me’.

He started working for LIFE magazine, the most popular during this time. He was frequently asked to photograph ideas, something that really fascinated him since, according to him, each idea was a challenge for him.

When he met Salvador Dali in 1941 they had a very special connection that resulted in multiple artistic collaborations. Together they will bring surrealism to the photo studio making incredibly fun stagings. Halsman enjoyed creating, experimenting, bringing the painting to the stage to make his own re-interpretation of it. Using different points of view, playing with illusion, depth of field, perspective, jumps, creating new forms and ideas. Each staging for a new photograph becomes a collage where different elements play an important role in the action

Dalí Atómicus

As we can see in this photo, all the elements that appear in the image are suspended in the air: a chair, Dali jumping, the easel where he is going to paint, the cats, the water, the Dali 'Atomic Leda' painting they used to be inspired by this idea and it is on the right side. The only thing that seems to touch the ground is the small easel under the painting. The rest of the elements are in the air.

In this 'behind the scenes' photo we can see one of the attempts, although instead of cats we have what appears to be a toaster, a couple of photos, and the image of a very surreal deformed clock. According to different sources, to take this photograph they had to make 27 attempts ... imagine! Throw 27 times the water and the cats! (2). Now it would have been a scandal to do so.

This other photo is really cool. Halsman plays with the idea of 'what goes through the artist's head'. We see Dalí in the foreground, sitting in the left corner of the image elegantly dressed. His face is thoughtful and surprised at the same time at the ideas that appear in his mind. Meanwhile, in the background and on the right side of the photo, the image that is possibly going through his head at that moment is revealed ... he is thinking about death but in his surreal way this image is revealed with the figure of a skull but made with the naked body of seven women.

And of course the behind the scenes is not wasted! As we can see, the staging is essential in his work, and Halsman always had different assistants to help him to make his ideas come true.

Dalí was his great playmate in the studio. Together they will make a fun photographic series where they pay tribute to the famous ‘Dalí's Mustache’. In his biography Halsman writes: 'For me photography can be very serious or very funny ... I particularly enjoy this game when I play it with Salvador Dalí. We were like two accomplices. Every time I had an unusual idea, I asked him to go the hero of my photography'. The result of his work was published in different photo books. Photographing a moustache like Dali's was probably never so much fun! In any case... what is your favourite photo?

In 1949 LIFE magazine commissioned him to photograph the French artist Jean Cocteau (3). This new commission was aimed at portraying what was 'in the artist's head'. And this was the result:

Incredible, right? How do you get a photo like that?

The staging is once again surreal. They created a dream world close to nightmare. The characters seem to be floating in space, especially Cocteau, it seems that at any moment he is going to fall and needs the help of his partner. His faces reflect anguish and fear. The tense muscles of his partner's body, which seems to be making a great effort to save him. And the clock with the hours completely changed help create this feeling of chaos. The image really has a very personal meaning. If we read a little about the life and work of Cocteau we can get a clearer idea of what can go through the artist's head.

Another incredible photographic series was the one he did for Alfred Hitchcock in the promotion of the film ‘The Birds’ which was released in the United States in 1963.

Tippi Hedren appears in her profile and above her, almost completely covering her, the crow appears. The photo was used as one of the film's promotional posters.

And in this other photo we can see the director's mind clearly represented ... who appears in the background, having lunch calmly, concentrating on his food, and with a pose of an English gentleman. Meanwhile, in the foreground her female character appears being attacked by two birds, completely disheveled, dirty and with a terrified face. The contrast is really great, Halsman managed to capture the filmmaker's dark humor, characteristic of his films, to create this magnificent photograph.

Halsman also has a beautiful collection of photographs taken with different dance and ballet artists, both in the studio and in natural places. In his studio photographs, the photographer plays with light and shadow adding drama to the action.

Both in studio and in natural spaces, your photographs will always be very dynamic, with beautiful compositions and incredible points of view. Here, the dancer jumps imitating the shapes of the plane behind him, in a beautiful, harmonious and elegant movement.

In this other photograph he plays with the idea of depth, placing the artists in different positions throughout the field, creating a compositional diagonal line that breaks the painting in two. Our gaze stops at the first dancer sitting on the floor, then at the second and finally goes directly to see the artist jumping behind, in a really beautiful movement. Clouds in the sky and dunes on the left side also help create this depth, bringing a sense of harmony with the surrounding environment.

In 1945 Philippe Halsman was elected the first president of the American Magazine Photographer Society (ASMP) where he led the fight to protect the creative and professional rights of photographers. In 1958, his colleagues named him one of the best photographers in the world, as Halsman had managed to make 101 covers for LIFE magazine. His famous portraits were so famous that he was invited to give a seminar at The New School entitled 'Psychological Portrait' (4).

Elizabeth Taylor, Audrey Hepburn, John F. Kennedy, Grace Kelly, Marilyn Monroe, Woody Allen, among others famous faces were portrayed by Philippe Halsman.

And finally, to finish this revision, is important to mention his series 'Jumpology'. In the early 1950s Halsman began asking his models to jump for him after each session (5). 'When you ask a person to jump, their attention is directed primarily to the act of jumping and the mask falls off to bring up the real person' (6).

Audrey Hepburn

Marilyn Monroe

Brigitte Bardot

And with this beautiful face of happiness and freedom I would like to say goodbye. I hope you liked the work of this great photographer who dared to break the rules of the moment to create his own style, always developing his own ideas, exploring new things and ultimately, enjoying his own work. I would like to invite you to see his full work on his website, enjoy it!


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