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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).

An artistic and literary movement led by French poet André Breton from 1924 through World War II. Drawing on the psychoanalytic theories of Sigmund Freud, the Surrealists sought to overthrow what they perceived as the oppressive rationalism of modern society by accessing the sur réalisme (superior reality) of the subconscious. In his 1924 “Surrealist Manifesto,” Breton argued for an uninhibited mode of expression derived from the mind’s involuntary mechanisms, particularly dreams, and called on artists to explore the uncharted depths of the imagination with radical new methods and visual forms. These ranged from abstract “automatic” drawings to hyper-realistic painted scenes inspired by dreams and nightmares to uncanny combinations of materials and objects.

The visual or narrative focus of a work of art.

A representation of a particular individual, usually intended to capture their likeness or personality.

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