Philppe Halsman was born on the 2nd of May, 1906 in Riga to a Jewish family of Morduch (Max) Halsman, a dentist, and Ita Grintuch, a grammar school principal. Halsman studied electrical engineering in Dresden. In September 1928, Halsman went on a hiking tour in the Austrian Alps with his father, Morduch. During this tour, Morduch died from severe head injuries. The circumstances were never completely clarified and Halsman was sentenced to four years’ imprisonment for patricide. The case provoked anti-Jewish propaganda and thus gained international publicity, and Albert Einstein and Thomas Mann wrote in support of Halsman. Halsman was released in 1931, under the condition that he left Austria for good, never to return.
Halsman left for France. He began contributing to fashion magazines such as Vogue and soon gained a reputation as one of the best portrait photographers in France, renowned for his sharp, and closely cropped images that shunned the old soft focus look. When France was invaded, Halsman fled to Marseille and he eventually managed to obtain a U.S. visa, aided by his family friend Albert Einstein.
In America, he had his first success when the cosmetics firm Elizabeth Arden used his image of model Constance Ford against the American flag in an advertising campaign for “Victory Red” lipstick. A year later, in 1942, he found work with Life, photographing hat designs, one of which, a portrait of a model in a Lilly Daché hat, was his first of the many covers he would do for Life.
In 1947, he made what was to become one of his most famous photos of a mournful Albert Einstein, who during the photography session recounted his regrets about his role in the United States pursuing the atomic bomb. The photo would later be used in 1966 on a U.S. postage stamp and in 1999, on the cover of Time, when Time dubbed Einstein as “Person of the Century.”
In 1951, Halsman was commissioned by NBC to photograph various popular comedians of the time including Milton Berle, Sid Caesar, Groucho Marx, and Bob Hope. While photographing the comedians doing their acts, he captured many of the comedians in mid air, which went on to inspire many later jump pictures of celebrities including the Ford family, The Duke and Duchess of Windsor, Marilyn Monroe, María Félix and Richard Nixon. Halsman commented, “When you ask a person to jump, his attention is mostly directed toward the act of jumping and the mask falls so that the real person appears.”
Other celebrities photographed by Halsman include Alfred Hitchcock, Martin and Lewis, Judy Garland, Winston Churchill, Marilyn Monroe, Dorothy Dandridge, and Pablo Picasso. Many of those photographs appeared on the cover of Life. In 1952, John F. Kennedy had two photograph sittings by Halsman. The result was that one photograph from the first sitting appeared on the jacket of the original edition of Profiles in Courage. In the second sitting a photograph was used in the senatorial campaign.
In 1958 Halsman was listed in Popular Photography’s “World’s Ten Greatest Photographers”, and in 1975 he received the Life Achievement in Photography Award from the American Society of Magazine Photographers. He also held numerous large exhibitions worldwide.
He passed away in New York, on the 25th of June, 1979.
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