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Photography and Public Image

Photographs of public figures or celebrities often reinforce their personas rather than reveal the real person behind the public image, but sometimes photographers manage to break through the facade.


Dali Atomicus

Philippe Halsman
(American, born Latvia. 1906–1979)

1948. Gelatin silver print, 10 1/8 x 13 1/8" (25.8 x 33.3 cm)

It took photographer Philippe Halsman and artist Salvador Dalí 28 tries to achieve the playful weightlessness of Dalí Atomicus. Halsman met Dalí and other artists in the Surrealist circle while he was living in Paris in the 1930s. In the late 1940s, the two men began to collaborate on a variety of photographic projects. Dalí Atomicus, perhaps the most iconic image to emerge from this collaboration, is a portrait of the artist inspired by his painting, Leda Atomica (1949), which appears in the composition’s right-hand corner—hanging suspended above the ground like the easel, chair, stepstool, cats, water, and Dalí himself.

Halsman photographed some of the most celebrated figures of the mid-20th century, from artists to movie stars to politicians. He began his career photographing for fashion magazines and cosmetics companies, later venturing into photojournalism, with 101 Life magazine covers to his credit. His closely cropped, sharply focused portraits were infused with warmth and a sense of humor, evincing his ability to make his subjects feel comfortable in front of the camera.

Halsmann, Philippe, Philippe Halsman’s Jump Book, New York: Abrams, 1986. pg. 8.

One who uses a camera or other means to produce photographs.

Having the character of an icon, i.e., an important and enduring symbol, an object of great attention and devotion.

A representation of a person or thing in a work of art.

A work of art made from paint applied to canvas, wood, paper, or another support (noun).

A literary, intellectual, and artistic movement that began in Paris in 1924 and was active through World War II. Influenced by Sigmund Freud’s writings on psychology, Surrealists, led by André Breton, were interested in how the irrational, unconscious mind could move beyond the constraints of the rational world. Surrealism grew out of dissatisfaction with traditional social values and artistic practices after World War I.

The visual or narrative focus of a work of art.

A representation of a particular individual.

A type of journalism that uses photographs to tell a news story.

The arrangement of the individual elements within a work of art so as to form a unified whole; also used to refer to a work of art, music, or literature, or its structure or organization.

Don’t Just Stand There, Jump!
Halsman took many so-called “jump” portraits of celebrities and political figures. About this strategy the photographer said, “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.”1