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Tuesday, July 11, 2017

Phillippe Halsman

Louis Armstrong, photo by Phillippe Halsman
If you were to ask all the artists you know (and perhaps some you don't know) why they became artists, you'd probably get as many reasons as there are artists. Years ago, had someone asked me that question, I would relate the fact that it was a toss-up as to whether I'd study art of become a writer. (Little did I know I'd do both.) In any case I chose art for the simple reason that to be successful as a writer, one is beholden to the literary and economic judgments of a publisher. An artist, on the other hand, is his or her own publisher and thus has only themselves and a diverse buying public to satisfy. Becoming a teacher of art, as I did, adds an extra layer of financial security to the undertaking. I made the right decision for my own needs then and now, years later, as a writer. I've never for a moment regretted either career.

Halsman at Jeu de Paume (Palm Game), probably his most famous photo, conceived and executed with the help of his good friend, Salvador Dali.
Sometimes the reasoning when an individual chooses an art career is every bit as carefully considered and logically thought through as mine was. All to often though, choosing to become an artist is more whim than carefully considered. That can lead to frustration in the short term, disaster in the long term, and a surprising degree of illogical success over a lifetime. When a young Frenchman named Phillippe Halsman began to consider a career, his father (who was a dentist) wanted him to become a doctor. Young Phillippe was gifted with a very high degree of intelligence. He spoke five languages fluently. Born in Riga, Latvia, being multilingual was not just a convenience, it was almost a requirement in multicultural stewpot of Europe. He spoke Lettish (Latvian), Russian, German, French, and Latin. Given his IQ, the choices he faced were virtually unlimited.

Ever the engineer, Halsman actually invented and had
built two new types of cameras, just for his own use.
Young Halsman's first choice was electrical engineering, which seemed a rather safe, reasonable pursuit back in 1914 when he finished high school and began college in Dresden, Germany. When his younger sister finished high school, she went off to Paris to study art at the Sorbonne. She fell in love with a fellow student and invited the entire family to her wedding in Paris. Although Halsman had enjoyed photography as a hobby since the age of fifteen, the vibrant Parisian art world latched onto him and held tight. He came within one semester of gaining a degree in electrical engineering but never finished his course work or exams. Instead, Halsman chose to employ his scientific leanings toward the burgeoning science of photography. In effect, Halsman chose art because his sister married a Frenchman--probably the lamest excuse ever conceived.
Phillippe Halsman and his wife, Yvonne, ca. 1947, with their two daughters, Jane (left), and Irene (right). The two large cameras Halsman invented for his own use.
Photography at the time was still largely unexplored, an art at the very beginning of its growth. Halsman considered the human face by far the most interesting subject to photograph. He looked at the photographs which were then fashionable in Paris and did not like what he saw. He found them diffused, pretentious and arty (not unlike academic portraits, which they had begun replacing. Halsman began fighting this trend. He set out to prove that photography could be realistic, strong, simple, and very sharp. He announced to his mother his decision to abandon his engineering studies to become a photographer. As might be expected, this decision went over like the proverbial lead balloon. His professor of mathematics admonished him, “Halsman, in a few months you could have your engineering degree. Instead you want to become…a photographer?"
Halsman's Dirty Harry (Clint Eastwood)--utmost force and clarity.
However, there was no one in Paris from whom he could learn what he needed. So Halsman had to find everything the hard way (and best way)--by experimentation--by teaching himself. He continued his experimenting in the darkroom. He understood that the creative process continues with every step. His newly discovered photographic techniques made it possible for him to make a visual statement not weakly or haphazardly, but with utmost force and clarity (above).

Halsman began to become better known. French actors and writers sought him out, as did magazines such as Voila, Vu, and Vogue to work for them. He participated in photographic exhibits. In a review about such an exhibit, Halsman was labeled the best portraitist in France. Though flattered, this remark had a curious influence on the young artist. It killed forever his uncomplicated carefree attitude toward his photographs. It triggered a new responsibility--that of living up to such high praise. Previously in portrait sittings he shot from two to possibly twelve plates for a particularly interesting or difficult subject. After the review, his plate consumption doubled, then tripled.

When World War II started, so did German air raids in France. At the time, Halsman's sister and her children were leaving for the United States. Halsman sent his wife and daughter with them. Two weeks later Paris fell and, with a million other Parisians, Halsman was in his car and on the roads of southern France. All he had were some clothes, his camera, and a dozen photographic prints. Eventually he reached Marseilles and sought out the American consul there. He was informed that he could not go to America since he had a Latvian passport and the Latvian immigration quota (eighteen people per year) was filled for the next seven years. His wife was pregnant with their second child, Jane. However his sister and wife, visited Professor Albert Einstein, with whom Halsman had exchanged letters ten years previously. They asked him what he could do to help. Einstein’s intervened, Halsman's name was added to the list of writers and artists in Europe who were given visas by the Emergency Rescue Committee, organized by then First Lady, Eleanor Roosevelt.

the highest achievement a magazine photographer might make.
Halsman's first few months in America were difficult. Though he spoke five languages, English was not one of them. Eventually, one of his photos for "Victory Red" lipstick found its way to Elizabeth Arden. Both Halsman and his model, Connie Ford, became famous almost overnight. She was also featured wearing a strange looking, but presumably stylish hat on Halsman's first Life Magazine cover (above). Over the next thirty-five years, Halsman's photos were used on a total of 101 Life covers (more than any other photographer). Halsman quickly became a very busy man. His life was always interesting because he never avoided a challenge or an opportunity to test himself in a new situation. During the early 1940s, Halsman met Salvador Dali with whom he was able to expand into surrealist areas of art because of the similarities of their approach in both painting and photography. Their first set of pictures together started a friendship that resulted in a long stream of unusual photographs.

Besides Dali, Halsman was also associated a number of other artist who, like himself, had come to American to avoid the conflict in Europe. Like Halsman, many of them never went back.
Over the course of the next several decades, Halsman photographed a tremendous number of celebrities--Clint Eastwood, Marlin Monroe, Elizabeth Taylor, Bob Hope, Audrey Hepburn, Salvador Dalí, and a great many others, but he was best known for his surrealist photographs and a series of photographs where he enjoyed getting his models to JUMP! Halsman was noted for his work at NBC where he photographed the stars of the moment, such as the comedian Jerry Lewis and his sidekick crooner, Dean Martin. Check out some of his work!

Halsman seems to have been quite persuasive. He even cajoled the Duke and Duchess of Windsor into doing a "Jump" photo.

See anyone you know? Halsman knew them all.
Phillippe Halsman died in New York, June 25, 1979.

That's all, folks!


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