Wrongly convicted of patricide and persecuted by the Nazis, the photographer Philippe Halsman had a troubled early life. But when he fled to America in 1940, his sensual, surreal portraits of the glamorous and the powerful made him a star himself. By Mary Panzer
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The Independent Culture
PHILIPPE HALSMAN arrived in New York early in November 1940 with little more than his camera. In three months he had a contract with a photographic agency, and within two years his work had appeared on the cover of Life magazine. A hundred more covers followed before his death in 1979. Halsman had a remarkable ability to combine glamour, sex and wholesome energy in one portrait. Together, his subjects create a vivid picture of prosperous American society in the middle years of this century.

Like many who escaped Hitler's Europe, Philippe Halsman rarely discussed the past. He rightly insisted that his most important work took place in the United States, and in many ways that place of refuge itself became his subject. Even contemporaries noted his patriotic flair. In one typical review of Halsman's work, T J Maloney, editor of the US Camera Annual, praised Halsman's "unsanctimonious and immensely intense portrayal of American bounce".

From a historian's perspective it seems clear that Halsman invented a glowing image of the nation as he saw it, using light, persuasion, nerve, imagination, psychology and experience. This place and these faces are his creation.

Halsman understood the studio as a place of artifice and fantasy, and this led him to collaborate with Salvador Dali on a long series of playful tableaux. In Paris in the 1930s, he had seen the work of surrealist artists and photographers in galleries and magazines, where pictures by Kertesz, Man Ray, and Brassai illustrated stories on fashion, celebrity and Parisian nightlife. As the art historian Peter Galassi has described, the surrealists were the first to understand that "ordinary photographs, especially when uprooted from their practical functions, contain a wealth of unintended, unpredictable meanings", and the subsequent "attempt to harness this centrifugal obstreperous force" occupied modern photographers for decades to follow. From the surrealists Halsman learned to surprise his viewers. Through lighting, focus, and close cropping, he turned formal fashion shots into serious investigations of character. And by including homely and ultimately disturbing details he gave his subjects drama.

From the surrealists' early exploration of the erotic unconscious, Halsman also learned the strategies he used to represent sex. He preserved a disarming innocence in his frequent use of hats, hands, cigarettes, and other fetishised objects. He certainly was not a prude, but he never theorised about why his work consistently exerted a strong sensual appeal. Halsman's use of surrealism belongs to the realm of the popular.

Throughout his career, Halsman proudly identified himself as a professional photographer. He was known for his exacting standards: he never missed a deadline, his prints were rich and flawless, and he pursued every possibility in search of the right result.

Halsman was born in 1906 in Riga, the capital of Latvia, and studied engineering in Dresden. His father, Max, was a dentist; his mother, Ita, a teacher. The Halsmans were a typical assimilated Jewish family. They were well educated and travelled widely.

Late in the summer of 1928, Philippe Halsman, then a 22-year-old student, met up with his family in the Tyrolean Alps near Innsbruck, Austria. This popular holiday spot had become a centre of the Heimwehr movement, a thinly disguised network for fascist activity. That September, Philippe Halsman and his family came into tragic conflict with its growing power.

While father and son were hiking, Max Halsman lingered behind, fell, and died as a result of his injuries. The grieving family arranged for a rapid burial, as required by Jewish law. Their haste aroused suspicion (Tirol funerals were famously long and elaborate). A rash of unsolved crimes in the area and a rife anti-Semitism further empowered local officials. Without evidence or motive, they quickly accused, tried and convicted Philippe Halsman of his father's death. Halsman served two years in prison while his sister and friends drew international attention to his case. Thomas Mann, Albert Einstein, Sigmund Freud and other important intellectuals endorsed his innocence. Finally, in the autumn of 1930, the "Austrian Dreyfus" was released. Halsman joined his mother, sister and her husband in Paris, happy to bring an end to his career as a political figure.

In Paris, Halsman left engineering behind, turned his former hobby into a livelihood, and by 1932 had established himself as a professional portrait photographer in Montparnasse. He shunned old-fashioned portrait styles, which called for soft focus and a great deal of retouching on the negative, in favour of dark, sharp, images. On the pavement in front of his studio he installed a glass display case. Passersby enjoyed the new pictures that appeared each week, and Halsman's reputation grew.

Like countless portrait artists before and since, Halsman sought out well-known figures, including Andre Gide, Andre Malraux, Heinrich Mann and Le Corbusier. His technique enabled him to capture a broad range of tones in a single image; his ability to combine dark shadows with shining highlights gave his prints intensity and freshness. And the portraits captured unusual, spontaneous expressions, thanks in part to Halsman's own technical innovation.

Early on, he grew dissatisfied with his conventional view camera; its single lens forced him to secure a pose, focus, then stop, load the film, and hope that nothing had changed.Twin-lens cameras increased speed, but their small negatives did not allow Halsman to produce the large, sharp images he wanted. Working with a local camera manufacturer, Halsman found a way to combine the advantages of both formats: by incorporating a second lens win a large-format camera, he could compose and focus freely while the camera was loaded, allowing spontaneity without sacrificing detail and drama.

In 1937 Halsman married Yvonne Moser, a fellow photographer, and by the next year had established his own business. But in the spring of 1940, when the Nazis threatened France, Halsman's mother, wife, baby daughter, sister and her children obtained visas and left for New York. Halsman's Latvian papers held him back. Just days before Paris fell, he travelled south, along with thousands of other refugees. When he reached Marseilles, Halsman appealed to the Emergency Rescue Committee, an American relief organisation that eventually helped many European intellectuals and artists reach free ports in Portugal and Spain, from which they could sail to freedom. But Halsman still needed a visa to enter the United States. He obtained it through the intervention of Albert Einstein. Einstein remembered Halsman's case well, and contacted Washing- ton on his behalf. On 16 November 1940, three days after Halsman arrived in New York, he wrote a heartfelt letter of thanks to "the one person to whom I owe the most". Einstein promptly sent warm wishes for "great success in the USA" and congratulated Halsman for having escaped the "bandits" yet again.

Every visitor to Halsman's studio remembered his wonderful dry humour. Friends still recount their favourite jokes and funny stories, revealing Halsman's pleasure in language, sharp attention to detail, and his theatrical sense of timing. All these qualities clearly informed his portrait style, from his teasing ability to prod a subject out of self- consciousness to the split-second reflexes he used to secure the right expression. Halsman enjoyed comparing his work to that of a good psychologist who regards his subjects with special insight and knows how to bring their true character to the surface. He often encouraged female subjects to think of the camera as a "symbol for the man she wants to please". Halsman could not repress his delight in the comedy of the human condition, and never tired of pointing out that such delight was also deeply absurd.

In 1950, the art director at NBC asked Halsman to create a bank of all- purpose images of their many popular comedians. The open assignment became an opportunity to collaborate with a now legendary group of performers, including Sid Caeser, Imogene Coca, Fred Allen, Groucho Marx and Bob Hope. Halsman began each session by making a traditional large-format portrait, then switched to the small, versatile Rollei camera to record his subject in action, jumping and performing headstands. As Halsman compared these antic images with more traditional ones, he found that each of the comedians had jumped in character.

Desperation (and good humour) finally drove him to ask others to jump for his camera when he tried to make an official photograph of the Ford family to mark the automobile company's 50th anniversary. He was having little luck with "nine bubbling adults, and 11 crying children and babies", until he politely asked matriarch Mrs Edsel Ford, a grandmother and owner of innumerable millions of dollars, "May I take a picture of you jumping?" The astonished Mrs Ford replied, "You want me to jump with my high heels?" Next, her daughter-in-law, Mrs Henry Ford II, requested her turn.

The resulting images had surprising charm, and over the next six years Halsman asked many clients to jump for him. (Though one magazine hired him to photograph Eleanor Roosevelt with the request that she stay on the ground.) In 1959, Halsman assembled his many "jump" pictures into a book. Nearly all the subjects were well-known, powerful public figures, politicians, executives and film stars whom one would never otherwise see off guard. "When you ask a person to jump," Halsman said, "his attention is mostly directed toward the act of jumping and the mask falls so that the real person appears". His text offered a mock-scientific reading of the positions in which the jumpers held their arms, legs, hands and feet. In many ways these images remained both controlled and highly considerate of the subjects.

Halsman pursued this collection to learn about his subjects and to discover something about himself. "I assure you that often, before approaching the person, my heart would beat and I would have to fight down all my inhibitions in order to address this request to my subject. At every time when the subject agreed to jump, it was for me like a kind of victory." Today, we wonder how so many could agree to abandon their composure for his camera. Halsman managed to convince each one that the risk was all his own.

At the end of his career Halsman explained, "This fascination with the human face has never left me ... 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."

As a young man, Halsman had experienced an ordeal that ended only when the world forced his jailers to recognise his innocence and he was set free. He knew that the effort to establish one's identity had significance far beyond the needs of the celebrity marketplace. With that larger mission in mind, he strove to make records of individual character that defied distortion and could never be misunderstood.

The origins of Halsman's style reside in his early political experience. But the real significance of his work comes from the way he responded to the opportunity he found in America. Like many artists of his generation, Halsman worked within the tradition of surrealism, seeking a way to suggest that another layer of meaning, dreamlike and real, lay just beneath the surface of everyday experience. Most used this insight to shock or disturb viewers. Halsman understood that the same strategy could provide great pleasure.

Mary Panzer is Curator of Photographs at the National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution, Washington DC

'Halsman: A Retrospective' is published by Pavilion Books on 19 November, price pounds 40