Philippe Halsman

Philippe Halsman was a Latvian/American photographer who originally came from Latvia. He was among the most popular photographers of all time; well-known for his black and white portraits. His work led him to get face-to-face with famous people such as sex icon Marilyn Monroe and genius Albert Einstein. The famous photographer has also worked with several well-known fashion magazines, including Life and Vogue magazines. In fact, he was the only photographer whose portraits appeared on Life magazine 101 times. He’s also worked with cosmetics brands like Elizabeth Arden. Nonetheless, he is most admired and remembered for his work with famous painter Salvador Dali.

Philippe Halsman Career

Philippe Halsman’s photography career started in France when he left Austria after spending a couple of years in prison. He first began contributing portraits and images of models for Vogue magazine, until he became a household name himself. After his debut, he became one of the sought-after photographers in France.

However, he had to change places when France was ultimately invaded by the Germans. Halsman and his young family were among the many intellectuals and artists that fled the country. In 1940, he was able to get into the United States complete with a visa with thanks to an old family friend — Albert Einstein.

He was then able to take a mournful portrait of the scientist in 1947. This would become of his most iconic images. During the photography session, the scientist was recounting his role in the US pursuit of the atomic bomb and how he regretted his part in it.

Halsman’s success in the US was first determined when he took a portrait of model Constance Ford in 1941. The image was that of the model leaning against the American flag. The image was used for Elizabeth Arden, a big cosmetics firm for “Victory Red” lipstick.

A year after in 1942, Halsman would begin his career as a Life magazine photographer where his first cover was that of model Lily Daché. This would be one of his many Life magazine covers.

Perhaps the highlight of Halsman’s career was working with surrealist painter Salvador Dali. One of his works was known as “Dalí Atomicus” which was created in 1948. The work focuses on gravity and suspension with “flying” cats, a bucket of water thrown and suspended in mid-air as well as Dali captured in a shot.

The image and the title was a reference to one of Dali’s works entitled “Leda Atomica.” In fact, the painting can actually be seen in the image.

Philippe Halsman Key Ideas

  • Most of Philippe Halsman’s works were portraits. He was well-known for capturing sharp images instead of soft focus which was more prevalent during those times. His portraits are also close-cropped. But apart from his portraits, Halsman has also been known to create the most famous “jump shots” as we call it in today’s world. These are photos wherein the subjects are captured while jumping in mid-air. This idea first came to mind when he was commissioned by NBC to capture images of comedians like Bob Hope and Groucho Marx. According to Halsman, he’d often take images of the comedian mid-jump which then grew into a thing. In fact, he was able to take jump shots of Marilyn Monroe, the Duke and Duchess of Windsor, and Richard Nixon.
  • Philippe Halsman was well-versed in fashion photography with his work with cosmetics companies and magazines. However, taking a look at his gallery, Halsman has also dabbled in conceptual or fine art photography. His entire work with Dali would be a good example as each image creates a narrative so close to Dali’s surrealist style. Apart from his collaboration with the painter, he also worked with several models for nude and experimental shots that were tricky and manipulated — dangling between the erotic and the fantasy. Nonetheless, Halsman’s main style circles around portraiture or capturing his subjects’ emotions through their facial expressions.
  • His work with Salvador Dali was mostly about surrealism and in a way, a peek into the creative mind of the painter himself. During his collaboration with him, the images would be manipulated in such a way that you’d have to look twice to see what the picture was all about. Every image had an underlying emotion and story. His portraits and even his jumpology series were all about capturing emotion. You can clearly see how his subjects felt. Marilyn Monroe always had this air of seduction and sultriness while the infamous Albert Einstein’s was morose. And then if you look at the portraits of politicians, they’d always have this sense of power and dominance. In general, Halsman’s theme was human emotion.
  • Most of Philippe Halsman’s portrait images are rather simple — capturing his subjects as natural as possible. There aren’t really any big preparations, maybe touching up the model and making the set look good. However, when the photographer worked with Dali and on his experimental shots, the concept was a little more surrealistic. They would have to manipulate and trick everybody with the shots. It’s often harder than usual portrait images and even with fashion photography as they need to take the right shot at the right moment and angle. It’s also manipulated post-shot to get the effect they wanted. Another popular concept from Halsman was Dali’s unique moustache, shown in every way possible. There’s also the recurring concept of mid-air shots.
  • Philippe Halsman has worked with many household names whether in the world of entertainment, politics, science, or art. He has worked several times with Marilyn Monroe, Salvador Dali, Sid Caesar, and Milton Berle. And since his forte is portraiture, his recurring subjects are basically these people who have become a huge part of his career as a photographer. Nudity, sexuality, and power were also a part of a lot of his photos so these can be considered as recurring themes in his works.
  • For the legendary photographer, a photo’s content is equally important to its graphic beauty. He even believes that an image that provides a deeper perception of things, that’s why many of his works may look silly at first but often has a deeper meaning. He was also very keen on showcasing his imagination and according to him, he was able to do it with his shoots with Dali. Dali was often his model when he had this unusual idea.


Philippe Halsman was born on May 2, 1906, in Riga to grammar school principal Ita Gruntich and dentist Morduch Halsman. The young photographer attended college in Dresden where he studied electrical engineering.

It was the month of September during the year of 1928 when the young Halsman was accused of his father’s murder. Apparently, the then 22-year-old Halsman and his father went on a hiking trip in an area well-known for antisemitism — the Austrian Tyrol. The whole investigation brought upon circumstantial evidence. However, the young man was sentenced to four years in prison.

Halsman’s family and friends fought hard for his release and to prove his innocence. They approached European intellectuals such as Albert Einstein, Sigmund Freud, Rudolf Oden, Jakob Wassermann, and more to help with the endeavor.

Regardless of the continued battle, Halsman remained for two years in prison where he also contracted tuberculosis. On 1930, he was pardoned by the President of Austria and became a free man. His letters from prison were then published.

However, his struggles continued. After going out of prison, he moved to France to pursue a career in photography. Soon after, the country would be invaded by Germany and he and his young family had to move to the United States of America. Thankfully, he was aided by Einstein and he was able to acquire a US visa and enter the country.

From then on, he’d become one of the frontrunners of the art of photography. He’d be working with famous people and create iconic works that remain important and relevant to this day. In fact, he was named as one of the “World’s Ten Greatest Photographers” back in 1958 by Popular Photography magazine.

In 1961, he published a book entitled “Halsman on the Creation of Photographic Ideas” where he discussed his methods and rules of creating unusual images.

On the 25th day of June 1979, Halsman died at the age of 73 in New York City.

Philippe Halsman Notable Works

Throughout his career, Philippe Halsman has taken hundreds of photos. However, some remain to be the most iconic images of all time. Here are several of Halsman’s most important photos.

Dali Atomicus

This photo was taken on 1948 by Halsman, aided and modeled by surrealist painter, Salvador Dali.

The image was quirky and fun, showing a jumping Dali caught in mid-air. Around him were three kittens leaping, a bucket of water thrown across the room, and a chair that was about to fall. All caught in the right moment, everything seemed to be suspended in the air.

While it does look fun, it took Dali and Halsman 28 tries before they successfully captured weightless fun.

Dali’s Moustache

Yet another fun and unusual photo idea, Philippe Halsman and his friend Salvador Dali decided to use Dali’s unconventional and yet iconic moustache for a series of quirky and playful photos. Choosing just one from these photos seem impossible, as each one was endearing and enjoyable.

However, among the most iconic photos was a portrait of Dali slightly on the left side of the frame, with eyes wide open as if looking at straight into your soul. But while his wide, judging eyes might be a great feature, the main focus was his thin moustache pointing up. In some ways, it does look like the whiskers of a catfish.

This hilarious representation of Dali’s moustache continued with several other photos. Some were manipulated to create even quirkier and funny images. For example, there’s one where Dali’s face resembled a clock and his moustache pointed out the hour and minute. There’s also one where Dali’s face was layered with a graphing paper and his moustache seemingly connecting a graph.

In 1954, the duo took a shot of Dali as the infamous Mona Lisa complete with the iconic Dali moustache.

Marilyn Monroe

Apart from Dali, Philippe Halsman also worked a lot with Marilyn Monroe. He first worked with her in 1952 when Life magazine sent him to shoot her.

According to the photographer, they drove to the outskirts of Los Angeles to her two-bedroom apartment where she had books written by Freud, history of Fabian socialism, and the likes. During the shoot, the icon was wearing a white gown and bold lipstick.

Halsman asked Monroe to stand in a corner of the room and directed the camera at her. The money shot was definitely that of the actress with her eyes half closed in what seemed like a mid-laugh and lips parted apart, obviously giggling and flirting with the camera. The woman loved the attention and Halsman took between 40 to 50 pics of her.

There also came a time when Halsman asked Monroe to take part in his jumpology series. She had photos taken of her in mid-air, gaily laughing and enjoying the moment. Indeed, it was the kind of reaction the photographer was trying to get — his subject’s true selves.

Albert Einstein

Albert Einstein was among Halsman’s closest family friends. He was able to help them during the time he was in prison and when he needed to take refuge in America.

However, Halsman didn’t have too many photos of the scientist. Still, one of his photos remains to be among the best and notable works of the photographer. The image was taken in 1947 but would soon be used for a 1966 postage stamp and for a 1999 Time magazine cover.

The image in question was a simple portrait of Einstein with his seemingly unkempt hair and looking mournful. Apparently, the scientist was feeling regret over his role to USA’s pursuit of the atomic bomb.


Philippe Halsman remains to be one of the world’s biggest and most influential photographers that even those in the career now still look up to his works. May it be conceptual photography or portraiture, today’s photographers certainly see him as an icon and a legend. Apart from his photos, his books also became a guide for those who want to learn how to take amazing photos.

Philippe Halsman Resources

Biography. Retrieved from

Images. Retrieved from

Smithsonian: National Portrait Gallery. Philippe Halsman. Retrieved from

Wikipedia. Philippe Halsman. Retrieved from

MoMA Learning. Dali Atomicus. Retrieved from

Shaw Academy. (19, February 2016). Top 15 Genres of Photography You Need to Know. Retrieved from

Philippe Halsman: Astonish Me!

Philippe Halsman, a Retrospective: Photographs from the Halsman Family Collection

Halsman Portraits

Halsman on the creation of photographic ideas

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