As Paul Caridad of Visual News puts it: “Before the age of Photoshop, there was Philippe Halsman”. The dynamic and surreal photography and portraits of this legendary artist was certainly a novelty in his time. Philippe used both stage and darkroom techniques to produce gravity defying objects and invented new ways of interacting with subjects.
Philippe Halsman was born in Riga in the part of the Russian Empire which later became Latvia. He was from a Jewish family of Morduch (Max) Halsman, a dentist, and Ita Grintuch, a grammar school principal, in Riga. When he got to the college age, Halsman studied electrical engineering in Dresden.
In September 1928, 22 year old Halsman was falsely accused of his father’s murder while they were on a hiking trip in the Austrian Tyrol, an area rife with antisemitism. He was sentenced to ten years hard labor/solitary confinement. His sister Liouba worked for his release, getting support from important European intellectuals including Freud, Einstein, Thomas Mann, Henri Hertz, and Paul Painlevé, who endorsed his innocence. He was pardoned and released in 1930.
Halsman consequently left Austria 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 images that were sharp rather than in soft focus as was often used, and closely cropped.
His works also appeared on the cover of Life Magazine frequently. He worked with celebrities as varied as Salvador Dali, Richard Nixon, and The Duke and Dutchess of Wales.