Jump for Joy
Sidebar Article: The Austrian Dreyfus
In a charming arts-and-crafts cottage in Montclair, Irene Halsman nurtures and burnishes the reputation of her father, Philippe Halsman, one of the most successful commercial photographers in America from 1942 until his death in 1979. In a striking example of the fickleness of fame, however, Philippes work has become better known than his name: Few people would fail to recognize his iconic photograph of Albert Einstein, or his quirky shots of famous people jumping into the air. But unlike photographers Gordon Parks and Ansel Adams, the Halsman name has been largely forgotten.
Stepping into that void, the Montclair Art Museum has mounted an exhibit of Philippe Halsmans works to celebrate the centennial of his birth, selecting from among the thousands of available images those of American artists and cultural figures like Weegee and Andy Warhol. The exhibit runs through Jan. 14.
In an interview with NJ Jewish News that took place in her living room surrounded by her fathers books and papers and her own work etchings, woodcuts, jewelry, and photographs Irene Halsman explained that her father was a perfectionist. He invented his own camera one that combined single- and two-lens cameras to give him greater spontaneity. Everything my father shot is hard to print because of the extreme light and dark, Irene said, adding, No one could print like my father. Because the creative process doesnt stop in the studio or the photography sitting, my father did all his own printing.
His success as a photojournalist, a field that was in its infancy when he did his first cover for Life magazine, was all the more remarkable because it was an unlikely career choice for a young man of his background. Born in Riga, Latvia, in 1906 to a middle-class family, he studied engineering in Germany, but by 1940, after a series of tragic events, he had moved to Paris, married, and became a successful fashion photographer.
When the Germans invaded France, Halsman sent his pregnant wife, Yvonne, daughter Irene, then one year old, and his mother-in-law to America on a freighter the last boat from Bordeaux, said Irene, but Philippe couldnt come; there was a quota of only 17 for Latvians, and her father did not make the cut. Albert Einstein, who was already in America, stepped in to help. The eminent scientist contacted Eleanor Roosevelt, who had formed a committee to rescue European artists mostly Jews and bring them to America. Roosevelt got a visa for Halsman, who arrived in New York in November 1940. He spoke five languages none of them English. Less than two years later, he shot his first cover for Life magazine, a fashion model in a Lilly Dache hat, one eye obscured by feathers, and a saucy grin that belied the grimness of wartime.
Moving from anonymous fashion models to celebrities, over the next three decades Halsman produced 101 covers for Life magazine more than any other artist along with covers and photo spreads for Paris Match, Esquire, Look, and Saturday Evening Post.
Many of the photos in the Halsman archives were family projects, his daughter said. Halsmans wife, who worked as her husbands assistant, was a photographer in her own right, and his two daughters, Irene and Jane, were often co-opted into helping stage a shoot. For the MAM exhibit, museum curator Gail Stavitsky sorted through the vintage photographs in the New York City home and studio. In a phone interview, she explained how MAM was able to mount this centennial exhibit: Irene Halsman helped me select the images. And then theres the fact that Irene is a resident of Montclair, and we were able to work closely with her.
As a photographer of the famous, Halsman gravitated toward the eccentric and the dramatic. He invented ways to illuminate the character and personality of his subjects, like asking them to jump, a technique he called half-humorously jumpology. One critic described the jumping series as a patriotic portrayal of American bounce. Introducing Philippe Halsmans Jump Book, Mike Wallace, newscaster and 60-Minutes star, wrote, By their jumps ye shall know them.
The mask falls when you jump, Irene said. Her father was a trendsetter. This is in essence body language he was reading it in 1959 before it became fashionable. Who would have had the chutzpa to ask the Duke and Dutchess of Windsor to jump? Or Richard Nixon, Marilyn Monroe, Bridget Bardot, Judge Learned Hand, and uncountable others?
Irene Halsman is committed to sharing her fathers legacy. An art teacher for 28 years, she is now retired and handles the licensing arrangements connected to her fathers photographs. This is not an easy job. There are 400 linear feet of filing cabinets holding photos in envelopes, she said. Others have gone to private collections and museums, and occasionally one is released for sale at Christies auction house.
She has so many stories that only she can tell, memories of the famous people who were captured by her fathers lens. At many shoots, however, she was on the periphery, tantalized by quick glimpses of the famous people who came to the 67th Street studio to be photographed. I was at school when most of the sittings happened, she said. I came home five minutes after Grace Kelly had her photo taken. I never saw her but I saw her dress. I was present during the Satchmo [Louis Armstrong] sitting also Sammy Davis, Humphrey Bogart. Can you imagine if Id asked them all for autographs Id have thousands. But I didnt ask.
There is comfort in the fact that although the autographs do not exist, the photo images a captivating visual history of an era are an enduring legacy.
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