My father was a dentist, and my mother gave up her profession as a teacher when I was born. This event, so important for me, happened on May 2, 1906, in Riga, Latvia.
Riga was a highly civilized old city of 300,000 inhabitants. It had museums, an opera, three repertory theaters, and a ballet. It was in Riga that the philosopher Immanuel Kant published his Critique of Pure Reason.
I had only one sister, Liouba, a few years younger than I, and we were very close. Our summer vacations were spent with our parents in Europe. Before I was eighteen, thanks to these travels, I was familiar with most of the important museums in Europe – where I was particularly affected by the portraits.
I caught the photography virus at the age of fifteen, when I discovered an old view-camera in our attic. My father had acquired the camera to use in his spare time, but had eventually stored it away. With my allowance money I bought myself a book which explained that I had to buy glass plates because at that time there was no film being used in Europe. I bought a dozen and photographed my sister near the window. I developed the first plate in our bathroom by the light of a ruby-red bulb. It was one of the most magical moments of my life. In the dim red light I watched, wide-eyed, a miracle: the gradual appearance of dark outlines on the milky surface of my plate – forming the first photographic image I had ever taken.
From then on, most of my pocket money went into my new hobby. I became the family photographer. On our trips it was I who took the usual kind of travel photos. But mostly I photographed my friends, my girlfriends, and the girlfriends of my friends. It was their faces that I tried to portray. Now, thinking back, I find it symptomatic. This fascination with the human face has never left me. Every face I see seems to hide – and sometimes fleetingly to reveal – the mystery of another human being. Later, capturing this revelation became the goal and the passion of my life. I became a collector of the reflections of the innermost self of the people who faced my camera.
I led a protected life. In Riga, school pupils were simultaneously taught five languages: Lettish, Russian, German, French, and Latin. I was at the head of the class and also its president in the last three school years. My father wanted me to study medicine, but I thought that electrical engineering was the great profession of the future. At eighteen I had finished school and went to study engineering in Dresden, Germany.
A couple of years later, my sister, who had gone to Paris to study art, fell in love with a young Frenchman. I went to their wedding in Paris. At that time, this vibrant city was indisputably the world capital of the arts, and it made such an impression on me that I decided to continue my studies there.
I was more interested in art and literature than my fellow students were. In comparison, mechanics and technique seemed dry to me. I had successfully passed my exams, but unlike most of my colleagues I could not repair a motor or a watch. More and more my thoughts turned to photography. I felt the urge to take pictures, to experiment, to create. Photography seemed to me still unexplored, an art at the very beginning of its growth.
Since I considered the human face the most interesting subject to photograph, I hoped I could explore it the way my favorite writers, Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky, had explored human nature, with psychological depth and honesty. I looked at photographs which were then fashionable in Paris and I did not like them. They were diffused, pretentious and arty. I saw myself fighting this trend. I wanted to show that photography could be realistic, strong, simple, and very sharp. And I decided there was a place for me. I announced to my mother my decision to abandon my studies and become a photographer. This made her very unhappy. My professor of mathematics told me, “Halsman, in a few months you can have your engineering degree and you want to become…a photographer!”
But I had made up my mind. I was a very stubborn young man, and I believed at the time that all my decisions were extremely intelligent and correct. I bought myself a photoflood lamp, a used enlarger, and announced to my friends that I had become a professional photographer. I worked and experimented with this one light for months in an effort to explore all its possibilities – how the light in different positions affected the mood and feeling of the picture, and seemingly changed the features of the sitter. Through this kind of experimentation I gained a basic understanding that has remained with me all my life.
Like most students in Paris I lived in a small hotel on the Left Bank, not far from the Sorbonne. One day, a young Frenchman who lived in the same hotel approached me. His name was Claude Delacroix, and he had left his job in a provincial town in order to become a film actor in Paris. Delacroix needed a portfolio of photographs to introduce himself to the film studios.
I brought Delacroix to my married sister’s living room. It had a white wall that I could use as a background. My entire equipment consisted of my old view camera on a tripod and the simple floodlight. Experimenting with this light during the session I realized with great clarity that lighting was not just illumination — but that it could also be a powerful means of characterization. I remember using one light in a high position, and photographing him as the farmer sunning himself. For another picture I used my light behind him to produce a rim lighting, and Delacroix looked pensive and dramatic, like an inspired poet. In a third picture, my light was shining from below into his face, showing him as a mixture of Dracula and Frankenstein’s monster.
Delacroix loved my pictures and ordered them all. On the strength of these photographs he got his first part in the movies, and I still treasure the recollection of how happy and how touchingly grateful he was. As for me – for the first time I had the proud feeling of the photographer’s power to sometimes influence or to change a life.
Then came the great moment, about four months later, when I decided to buy myself a second light. This was a very important step for me because with two lights I learned I could produce an infinite amount of lightings. The lens in my camera was an old unsharp Aplanate. I had now earned enough to buy a sharp Zeiss Tessar, and the sharpness of my photographs became one of the main characteristics of my work.
There was nobody in Paris from whom I could learn what else I needed, and so I had to find everything by experimentation and by teaching myself. I continued my exploration in the darkroom. I understood that the creative process continues with every step. For me, each portrait is a statement about my subject. I feel that my photograph, from the inception to the finished print, has to be conceived and controlled by me. Photographic technique made it possible for me to make this statement not weakly or haphazardly, but with utmost force and clarity.
It was not easy to work and live in a tiny hotel room, and after a year I found a studio in the heart of Montparnasse, which in the 1930s was the artistic center of Paris. The studio, on Rue Delambre, consisted of a large room and a kitchen which I transformed into a darkroom. It was modest, but it had the glamour of being very close to the famous Café du Dome. I bought myself a large display case which I put on the wall of my building for people to see. It held four or five photographs, which I changed every week. Soon people even began to make a detour to see and discuss my latest work.
I now had a small number of photographs of which I was rather proud, but none of them was of a famous person. Since I had been interested in literature for a long time, I decided to photograph the writers whom I admired. I approached Andre Gide, the greatest living French writer of that time, and asked whether I could do his portrait. He agreed, and with my camera and two floodlights I went to Gide’s apartment in the Rue Vaneau. And it was during this portrait session with Andre Gide that I made for me a very important discovery. He was very much interested in having a good portrait of himself, and when I went to his home to photograph him he threw himself into a very picturesque pose. I found the best angle to shoot this pose, and arranged my lighting. When it was right, I closed the shutter, took away the ground glass, put my film holder in the camera, removed the film holder slide, and cocked the shutter. But during these few seconds the tension in Gide became unbearable, and just before I shot the picture he changed the pose. This happened over and over again, and I finally realized that the three seconds which preceded the taking of the pictures had to be reduced to zero; that if the photographer is really interested in capturing the most important moment, the decisive moment, he has to be able to shoot instantaneously when the moment appears. I spent a sleepless night and the next morning I designed a gadget which could cut these endless seconds in half.
I used this gadget for more than a year, and it inspired me to begin the design of a new twin-lens reflex camera that would also produce larger (9×12 cm) negatives, thereby enabling me to achieve the degree of technical perfection I wanted for my portraits. Although I quickly ran into optical difficulties, my technical background and my knowledge of optics proved to be helpful. I found an old cabinetmaker, the grandson of the cabinetmaker who made the first camera for Daguerre. With delicate craftsmanship he implemented my design using the finest mahogany wood. I now had an extremely useful tool with two matched 210mm Tessar lenses, a tool that to my knowledge nobody else possessed. It influenced the entire style of my portraiture. Instead of standing beside the camera, a spectator looking at a subject, I was now looking at the sitter through the camera. To meet my eye the sitter had to look at the lens. As a result, I started to get pictures capturing not vacuous expressions of people staring at a glass lens, but expressions showing the full impact of a personality.
I began to become better known. Actors and writers sought me out. Magazines such as Voila, Vu, and Vogue asked me to work for them. I participated in photographic exhibits. In a review about such an exhibit, I read: “Philippe Halsman has become probably the best portraitist we have now in France.” This remark had a curious influence on me. Of course, it flattered me, but it killed forever my uncomplicated carefree attitude toward my own photographs. I felt a new responsibility. Looking at my photographs I worried: Are they really worthy of “probably the best portraitist in France”? Previously in portrait sittings I shot from two to possibly twelve plates for a particularly interesting or difficult subject. After the review, my plate consumption doubled and tripled.
Possibly because of this review, a young French girl appeared one day and timidly asked whether she could become my apprentice. After a year of work in my studio, Yvonne became an independent photographer, and two years later we were married. Very often in jest I advise young photographers that the best way to get rid of a competitor is to marry him or her.
A year later, a little girl was born to us. We named her Irene, which literally means “peace.” But then World War II started, and with it German air raids in France. At that time, my sister and her children were leaving for the United States, and I sent my wife and our daughter with them. Two weeks later Paris fell and, with a million other Parisians, I was in my car and on the roads of southern France. All I had taken with me were some clothes, my Halsman camera, and a dozen photographic prints. Eventually I reached Marseilles and saw the American consul there. He informed me that I could not go to American since I had a Latvian passport and the Latvian immigration quota (eighteen people per year) was filled for the next seven years. I was desperate because I knew that Yvonnne’s money was about to run out and that she could not work because we were expecting our second child, Jane. My sister and my wife, however, visited Professor Albert Einstein, with whom I had exchanged letters ten years previously. They asked him what he could do to help, and on Professor Einstein’s intervention, my name was added to the list of writers and artists in Europe who were given visas by the Emergency Rescue Committee, organized by Mrs. Eleanor Roosevelt.
I arrived on November 10, 1940, and a very difficult time began for me. I was known in France, but almost nobody in America had heard of me. I spoke five languages, but I had almost no knowledge of English. I had no friends and almost no money. I spent the first three months trying to find work. Finally I signed a two-year contract with Black Star, the photo agency, which sent me off to shoot a variety of subjects, including the circus and many parades. During this period I had to learn the technique of multiple flash, which was then unknown in Europe. We four lived in a boardinghouse, crowded into a single room, but even so my weekly advance was not enough for two adults and two babies. Finally, after about ten months of hard work, I realized that I could not count on Black Star to find me enough assignments, so I tried to look for clients myself.
One day in a model agency I was struck by the profile of a young girl For me it symbolized everything that I liked in America: the youth, the beauty, and the strength of this new country. The girl’s name was Connie Ford; she was eighteen, just starting to model, and she was delighted to pose in exchange for the photographs I would take of her. I decided to make a photograph which I could call “The American Profile.” I bought myself an American flag made of paper. My lighting consisted of two ordinary floodlights. When Connie came to our furnished room I put the flag on the floor, and she lay down with her head on it. Every ten minutes my telephone rang. It was Connie’s mother, making sure that nothing happened to her daughter. She distrusted photographers from France who worked in furnished rooms.
Connie liked the picture and put it into her portfolio. Months later, she showed her album to the beauty products tycoon Elizabeth Arden, who decided on the spot that this was the picture she was looking for to advertise her “Victory Red” lipstick. The country was swept with advertisements and posters showing my picture of Connie’s head on the flag, and Connie Ford became famous overnight. This was my first real breakthrough in America. The photograph won the Art Directors Club Medal and opened many doors for me.
A fashion story on ladies’ hats led to my first cover for LIFE magazine. At that time the highest achievement for a magazine photographer was to make the cover of LIFE. It was tantamount to winning a contest because each week the cover was chosen from among dozens of photographs of different subjects. My second LIFE assignment also resulted in a cover. From then on, LIFE started to use me frequently on various assignments, most particularly when they hoped for an interesting cover. I ultimately made 101 LIFE covers, a record that remains one of my proudest accomplishments.
I was becoming a very busy photographer. My life was always interesting because I never avoided a challenge or an opportunity to test myself in a new situation. Sometimes these assignments involved the technique of photographing ideas, which is something that has always fascinated me. When I met Salvador Dali in the early 1940s, I was able to expand in this area because of his own similar approach in his paintings. Our first set of pictures together started a friendship between us that resulted in a stream of unusual photographs.
Work in various fields of photography has permitted me to return to portraiture with new ideas, with fresh enthusiasm, and with even deeper understanding of portraiture’s main challenges. It is important to remember that a portrait sitting is an extremely artificial situation. Very few people are able to lose their self-consciousness immediately and behave in front of the camera as though it were not there. In almost all cases the photographer has to help the subject reveal himself. In many sittings I have felt that what I said to the subject was more important than what I did with my camera and my lights.
My great interest in life has been people. A human being changes continuously throughout life. His thoughts and moods change, his expressions and even his features change. And here we come to the crucial problem of portraiture. If the likeness of a human being consists of an infinite number of different images, which one of these images should we try to capture? For me, the answer has always been, the image which reveals most completely both the exterior and the interior of the subject.
Such a picture is called a portrait. A true portrait should, today and a hundred years from today, be the testimony of how this person looked and what kind of human being he was.
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