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The master of portraits gets his first full showcase

Halsman: "My aim is to produce a photograph that will go down in history as the defining image of that person." Philippe Halsman Archive/Magnum Photos

A Swiss museum is curating the first-ever exhibition showcasing the entire career of the darling of post-war iconography and the inventor of jumpology, Philippe Halsman. It sheds new light on his work.

This content was published on March 2, 2014 - 11:00
Michele Laird in Lausanne, swissinfo.ch

Few people know his name, yet Halsman was a leading photographer of the 20th century whose intense and playful portraits made the cover of Life magazine more than 100 times.

The Musée de l’Elysée show in Lausanne presents Halsman as one of the first photographers in history to have considered and used his medium as art.

“We did not want to just display Halsman’s 150 iconic images, we wanted to highlight the creative processes that he used to make them,” Elysée director Sam Stourdzé explained.

His work is also permeated by an immense joie de vivre, which Stourdzé suggests may have been the expression of resilience of a Latvian Jew born at the beginning of the last century and who directly experienced the rise of anti-Semitism (see infobox).

Wrongly accused

Born in Riga, Latvia, in 1906, Halsman intended to become an engineer. He became an early victim of anti-Semitism when he was falsely accused in Austria in 1928 of the accidental death of his father on a hiking trip. Following a year of solitary confinement, he was released due to the international outcry of a committee, rallied by his sister Liouba, that included Thomas Mann, Sigmund Freud and Albert Einstein. In 1940, Einstein was to intercede again with the help of Eleanor Roosevelt, to allow Halsman entry into the US despite his Latvian passport.

In 1947, Halsman made a harrowing portrait of Einstein reflecting with dismay how his discoveries had helped create the atom bomb. This picture was used twice as a stamp effigy and as a cover of Time magazine.

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“I am convinced that his deep empathy and ability to get to the essence of people was linked to his imprisonment as a young man in Austria,” said Stourzé, adding brightly: “It’s interesting to note how he always seemed to introduce danger in his own photo shoots, albeit with humour.”

“He had a deep need to connect with people,” confirmed Irene Halsman, the photographer’s first daughter. With several other members of the family, she travelled from the United States to attend the opening.

“We have never had a show like this that retraces his entire career. You can really get a feel for Philippe, for his sense of mystery and delight,” she told swissinfo.ch.

For over 40 years until 1979, Halsman used his technical ingeniousness and natural mischievousness as sources of constant experimentation. “His sense of irony is everywhere,” Irene Halsman observed.

Paris in the 1930s

Discovered in a trunk that made its way to the US several years after Halsman escaped from Nazi-invaded France and that is still in possession of the family, non-archived material surfaced from the beginning of Halsman’s career in Paris in the 1930s.

The Elysée has analysed the trove of documents and is presenting it for the first time.

From 1931 to 1940, Halsman lived in Paris, where he established his reputation as a portraitist who could seize the invisible. “He invented the photographic interview,” said Elysée curator Anne Lacoste. André Gide, Le Corbusier and Marc Chagall were among the artists and intellectuals whom he immortalised.

Lacoste also pointed out that the rising consumerism of the years between the two wars was nurtured by the birth of magazines made possible by the development of offset printing. Halsman contributed regularly to popular publications such as Vogue, Vu and Voilà, but his work was also exhibited in an avant-garde venue, the Galerie de la Pléiade.

“We hadn’t understood the importance of his work in Paris,” admitted son-in-law Steve Bello, who was married to Halsman’s second daughter, Jane.

“We thought he was still learning his craft, but in fact, he had already established his style and technique. He had more work published in France than we realised,” said Bello as he inspected the Lausanne show.

In 1940, Halsman’s career in Paris ended abruptly with the Nazi invasion. His wife, Yvonne Moser, a French national and accomplished photographer in her own right, and their baby daughter, Irene, fled to the US, followed six months later by Halsman, whose Latvian passport had kept him behind.

The seeds of stardom

It wasn’t long before Halsman was doing fashion shots in New York and his first cover of Life. By 1944, he was travelling to Hollywood to photograph Humphrey Bogart, Lauren Bacall, Frank Sinatra, Ingrid Bergman, Bette Davis and Judy Garland.

In 1949 he was asked to cover emerging starlets. Marilyn Monroe, he recalled, had a natural ability to flirt with the camera lens.

Philippe Halsman

Marilyn felt that the lens was not just a glass eye, but the symbol of the eyes of millions of men. She knew how to woo this lens better than any actress I ever photographed.

Over the next ten years, Halsman made memorable sequences with Monroe, including one in which she enacts a job interview with teasing voluptuousness. Following a seven-point strategic plan invented by Halsman, it is undoubtedly one of Marilyn’s greatest comic achievements and a highlight of the Elysée show:

‘Approach’

‘Pelvis Thrust at the Enemy’

‘Taking Battle Positions’

‘Breastwork’

‘Attack’

‘Final Assault’

‘Victory’

Another highlight is The Frenchman, made with the putty-faced French comic star Fernandel in 1948. Halsman pretends to be a puritanical female journalist who asks a series of questions to which Fernandel responds silently with facial expressions that leave no doubt to his answers. One of the questions is: What measures are being taken by the French government to raise the birth rate?

Halsman on Halsman

“I do a lot of portraits and I take them very seriously. I try to capture the very essence of my subjects truthfully and without any artifice. My aim is to produce a photograph that will go down in history as the defining image of that person, so that when people come to conjure up a picture to themselves of a great figure in the past, what they will see will be an image created by my camera and with my eye.”

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Jumpology

Along the way, Halsman had progressively invented jumpology, the art of capturing his subjects in mid-air. He discovered how they became themselves when attempting to defy gravity, each one of them unveiling an aspect of their character hitherto hidden from the camera. Richard Nixon, Audrey Hepburn, the Duke and Duchess of Windsor, Orson Welles, Brigitte Bardot and countless others revealed themselves in unexpected ways as they struck their levitated poses.

“When you ask a person to jump, his attention is mostly directed towards the act of jumping and the mask falls so that the real person appears,” Halsman said.

Photoshop before Photoshop

Halsman’s technical background as an electrical engineer, combined with his unbridled imagination, resulted in endless experimentation. He pioneered the use of flash, including with a stroboscope, favoured unorthodox angles, invented a 4 x 5 camera box to make bigger and more precise pictures and became a master of photo montages.

Asked how he added so many arms to Jean Cocteau (a tribute to his multidisciplinary talents), or a third leg to fellow photographer Alfred Eisenstaedt (whose steadiness without a tripod was legendary), Halsman answered: “With very little scissors.”

“This was before Photoshop,” Irene Halsman said with amusement.

Philippe Halsman

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.

A collaboration with Salvatore Dali over 30 years was especially creative. The two outmatched each other in outrageousness. Both men were interested in science and together they staged elaborate mises-en scène of flying cats, melting faces and Dali’s moustache growing out of cheese.

From a man reputed for the seriousness of his work in fashion, politics and film, this side to Halsman did not always go down well.

“Some of my colleagues think I damage my reputation as a serious photographer by publishing ‘silly and tricky’ manipulated photographs like the ones I did of Dali – which mostly expressed abstract ideas. I believe they are wrong,” Halsman said.

Halsman liked to have the last word, Irene Halsman mused. There was a ping-pong table in the living room, she told swissinfo.ch, and Halsman would get upset if he didn’t win.

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