Philippe Halsman – The Visionary Who Re-defined Portrait Photography

Updated: Dec 18, 2020

“A human being changes continuously throughout life. His thoughts and moods change, his expressions and even his features change. And here we come to the crucial problem of portraiture. If the likeness of a human being consists of an infinite number of different images, which one of these images should we try to capture? For me, the answer has always been, the image which reveals most completely both the exterior and the interior of the subject. Such a picture is called a portrait. A true portrait should, today and a hundred years from today, be the testimony of how this person looked and what kind of human being he was.”

Philippe Halsman (2 May 1906 – 25 June 1979) was an American portrait photographer. Born in Riga in the part of the Russian Empire which later became Latvia, to Jewish parents, Halsman initially studied electrical engineering in Dresden before moving to Paris, where he set up his first photography studio. While in France, Halsman made portraits of Le Corbusier and Marc Chagall, among others. His sharply contrasting images broke from the tradition style of softly focused portraiture. With the help of his friend Albert Einstein, the artist was able to escape Europe after the Nazi invasion of France and immigrate to New York. In 1947, Halsman 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 magazine, when it called Einstein the "Person of the Century."

“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. Later, capturing this revelation became the goal and the passion of my life. I became a collector of the reflections of the innermost self of the people who faced my camera.”

Over the decades that followed, the artist’s photographs appeared in a number of publications including Vogue and LIFE.  A fashion story on ladies’ hats led to Halsman’s first cover for LIFE magazine. At that time the highest achievement for many portrait photographers was to make the cover of LIFE. His second LIFE assignment also resulted in a cover. From then on, LIFE started to use Philippe Halsman’s photos frequently on various assignments, most particularly when they hoped for an interesting cover. Halsman then went on to make 101 LIFE covers, a record that remains one the greatest accomplishments of his career. Halsman often derived inspiration for his photography from themes in literature and from writers such as Tolstoy and Dostoevsky. Both these writers were not very much interested in style, and they used language not as an artistic instrument, but only as a means of clearly expressing their thoughts. What impressed Halsman about these writers were their psychological depth and their great honesty and lack of artifice. These were the qualities that Halsman tried to achieve in his photographs.

Settled in New York, Halsman began collaborations with other émigré artists, including the great Spanish surrealist painter Salvador Dalí, with whom he created two of his most famous images, Dalí Atomicus (1948) and Voluptas Mors (1951). Halsman’s collaboration with Dali was one of extra-ordinary brilliance. Viewing the photos makes one feel as if Halsman has entered into the mind of Dali and can watch thoughts and ideas form inside Dali’s mind. It appears that it is Dali’s own thoughts and ideas that Halsman uses as the subjects of his photos leading to brilliant surreal photographs of the great surrealist painter himself.

His characters sometimes seem to come out of fairytales. Still, what can be prominently seen within his work is hope in the endurance of human endeavor, in spite of its fragility. 
Throughout his work, Koudelka appears not as a neutral observer but rather as a photographer who is sharing the experience of his subjects whether it be in rage, anguish, outrage, anticipation, despair, disbelief, loneliness or alienation. This is ultimately why Koudelka can be considered a great “photo-poet” of his time.



All photos taken from the Magnum Photos website, Philippe Halsman’s website and Wikipedia.

Complied by:

Mustafa Habib Chowdhury

Freelance Travel Photographer by passion

and a Professor of Engineering by profession



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