When you think of some of the most iconic images of the greatest personalities of the twentieth century, ones of powerful politicians, charming actors and actresses, artists, and so on, you'd be surprised that they were taken by a select few photographers. One of those select few was Philippe Halsman, a Latvian-born photographer who was considered to be one of the best portraitists in the entire world. And as you'll learn, he's the author of many well-known portraits, some of which the celebrities are remembered by, like his portrait of John. F. Kennedy, Salvador Dali, Alfred Hitchcock, Audrey Hepburn, and many, many more. Let's not waste our breath any more and let's jump to the pictures, which might leave you breathless.
All photos © Philippe Halsman Archive.
Oliver Halsman Rosenberg, the curator of the archive, has given an exclusive interview to Bored Panda. "I come from a lineage of artists, Philippe was my grandfather, and my grandmother Yvonne was his assistant and an excellent photographer in her own right. My mom is an artist and art teacher, so it's in the DNA and I am continuing the tradition of playful, mysterious, and innovative art. Unfortunately my grandfather died while I was a child, so I never really got to know him, but I have all of his images, letters, and audio tapes, so I feel like I have a good sense of who he was."
"Philippe went to school for electrical engineering (which was the profession of the future in the 1920s), and even though he was at the top of his class he dropped out before graduation and decided to become a photographer in Paris in the 1930s (which at the time was perceived as a bad career choice). He started experimenting with lights and by photographing homeless people, young actors, models, and hairdressers. He invented his own camera, eventually started to photograph his favorite authors, and became known as one of the best portraitists in Paris at the time. The Nazis invaded and he was on the run for many months, and through the miraculous intervention of Albert Einstein, he was given an emergency visa for artists and writers. He came to America with nothing and had to start his whole career over again. He started working for the Black Star Photo Agency and eventually had a few lucky breaks. One photo of his was selected for an Elizabeth Arden lipstick campaign, which went on to win an important award and open many doors for Halsman. In 1942 he got the first of his 101 LIFE covers. It was through LIFE and other magazines that his work was seen by millions of people every month."
He also told about Philippe's peculiar relation with Dali, as they worked for more than 37 years together. "He met Dali in 1941 in NYC when Dali was premiering some costume designs for the Ballet Russe. Halsman's photo was selected as LIFE magazine's picture of the week. Dali and Halsman were very opposite in their personality, but found they had a good collaborative synergy and continued to create and play and invent together for the next 37 years."
Oliver also told how the idea for the archive came about and the legacy that Philippe has left.
"When my grandmother died, I needed to organize all of the prints and files, so I put my own art career on hold and became an accidental archivist. I juggle my own creative projects now and help organize Halsman exhibitions and publications.
It's hard to say how many photos he left behind. He took 1000s but some have never been printed. I love looking through old contact sheets and finding outtakes that have never been seen before. My book Unknown Halsman was my way of taking some of these hidden gems and giving them a new life."
As for the favorite photos or series, Oliver admitted that "it's hard to pick a favorite series, but I like his experimental work where he was pushing the limits of what a photograph could be. Now we have Photoshop, but in his time he had to invent techniques to achieve an idea that was only in his mind."
Oliver has also told about some developments in Latvia, Halsman's home country. "Halsman was born in Riga, Latvia in 1906, and we are in discussion now with some people who want to open a Halsman museum in the house he grew up in."
Oliver hopes that people won't forget his grandfather's works soon. "I hope people are still interested in his work. I remember when I was creating a digital database of his work I would come across actors and actresses I had never heard of, and when I Google/YouTube searched them it turned out they were very famous at the time and totally talented. Now celebrity culture is so viral and instant that it's cool to go back and understand our roots and discover new people to be inspired by."