If there’s one thing a time of pre-packaged celebrity needs, it’s a Philippe Halsman.
Those who thrive in this era of disposable fame, dominated by Britney Spears and Freddie Prinze Jr., depend not just on undemanding public tastes, but on a careful management of image by publicists and personal handlers. We need a guy who extracts the startling quote, or the photographer—like Philippe Halsman—who somehow finds something real when the lights have been dimmed on the choreographed photo opportunities.
During the next few weeks, as the Sundance Film Festival plays itself out in Park City, the Kimball Art Center will be showing a selection of master portraitist Halsman’s photographs of classic Hollywood stars. While turning a blind eye to the irony of showing stars from the height of studio Hollywood during an independent film festival, the installation will showcase over 30 of Halsman’s original photographs taken between 1944 and 1966.
With Albert Einstein acting as his sponsor, the Latvian-born Halsman landed in New York in 1940, barely escaping the Nazis before the invasion of France. Already recognized as one of the most prominent photographers in pre-World War II Europe, he quickly found news work here in the United States. Yet it was a chance photography session with model Connie Ford that ultimately led to Halsman’s change of fate, bringing critical attention to his portraits. In 1942—when Life magazine selected what was to become the first in a record 101 Halsman images used for its covers—Halsman began to interpret candidly the chronically unreachable celebrity for the general public.
What is most compelling about Halsman’s celebrity portraits are not the regal attitudes, iconic expressions and timeless fashion realized by his lens. It is the immense amount of character displayed in a two-dimensional format. His gift for finding the person behind the celebrity—the private, quirky individual masked by the public image—allowed Halsman to capture not only an underlying humanity, but the imagination of the audience as well.
He attained this remarkable feat by creating his signature technique “Jumpology.” The idea was straightforward: He photographed celebrities while they were jumping. If, say, Carry Grant was stiff and anxious during a shoot, Halsman would politely ask him to stand up and jump. What resulted was the washing away of tensions in the room as the subject attempted to escape the bounds of gravity, if just for a second or two. More significantly, Halsman began to notice not just the relaxation of the subject, but the way the public mask of the celebrity would disappear in mid-air with that sudden burst of energy. Further, he noted, a simple jump could contain heretofore hidden, core aspects of the individual’s personality, like the schoolgirl elation of Marilyn Monroe as she tucked both legs behind her, leaving only a truncated dress.
Slipping effectively between the world of conventional commercial shots for ad campaigns, magazine covers, Hollywood publicity and his unguarded jump shots, Halsman was able to produce some of the most candid official shots of classic celebrity—Anthony Perkins slumping in an oversized chair—while simultaneously capturing sights like the confused flying freedom of Jimmy Durante. So perhaps there is something fitting about a Halsman exhibit coinciding with Sundance. As a photographer, he scratched through the managed celebrity of his own time, trying to find something real beneath the glossy veneer. It was an “alternative” brand of celebrity portraiture, an artistic style that found a place for what was there when you stripped away everything that had been focus-grouped and approved for mass consumption.