Photo Of The Day

Philippe Halsman: Dali Atomicus, 1948

Philippe Halsman: Dali Atomicus, 1948

Halsman and Dali Playing

Before modern, computerized techniques in image manipulation, Philippe Halsman shot this photograph of Salvador Dali suspended in mid-air. While today this image could easily be replicated in Photoshop, it wasn’t possible in 1948. Taking 28 attempts, it was over four hours before Halsman was satisfied with the photo.

Halsman set up his New York studio and using the 4 x 5 format, twin-lens reflex camera that he had designed in 1947, he prepared to capture one of his most memorable photographs. He suspended an easel, two paintings by Dali (one of which was “Leda Atomica”), and a stepping stool; had his wife, Yvonne, hold a chair in the air; on the count of three, his assistants threw three cats and a bucket of water into the air; and on the count of four, Dali jumped and Halsman snapped the picture. While his assistants mopped the floor and consoled the cats, Halsman went to the darkroom, developed the film, and reemerged to do it again. “Six hours and twenty-eight throws later, the result satisfied my striving for perfection,” wrote Halsman.

Philippe Halsman and Salvador Dali lived and worked in Paris in the 1930s, when surrealism flourished. But they first met in New York in 1941, when both were new émigrés. They had arrived within months of each other – Dali in August 1940, and Halsman three months later. During the previous ten years, their paths must have criss-crossed frequently in the narrow streets of Montparnasse, where Halsman had a studio at 22 Rue Delambre, and Dali was part of the surrealist enclave at 54 Rue du Chateau. In 1936, Halsman exhibited photographs at the Galerie de la Pleiade, where surrealist photographer Man Ray also showed his work. But until 1941, Halsman and Dali had never met.

Within a year of his arrival in New York, Halsman had re-established himself. His iconic portrait of model Connie Ford silhouetted against an American flag had been featured in a major Elizabeth Arden advertising campaign.  In April, 1941, Halsman was assigned by the Black Star Agency to photograph the  installation of Dali’s first New York exhibit — at the Julien Levy Gallery.  Halsman’s relationship with Dali deepened in October, when he photographed the outsize costumes Dali created for the Ballets Russes production of “Labyrinth” at the Metropolitan Opera House — with music by Franz Schubert, choreography by Leonid Massine, and scenery and costumes by Salvador Dali.

Lacking a large studio, Halsman took the company’s prima ballerina, Tamara Toumanova, and another dancer dressed as a giant white rooster, to a nearby rooftop. When Halsman photographed bird and ballerina against the soaring towers of Rockefeller Center, he produced a photograph that evoked one of Dali’s own sharply-focused, surreal works of art. The photo became LIFE’s “Picture of the Week,” the artists became inspired friends, and their creative rapport would last for the next 37 years.

Several weeks later they collaborated again; this time they produced a collaged photograph of Dali lying naked in the embryo pose within an enlarged photo of an egg. The image, entitled “Pre-Natal Memory,” was published the following year in Dali’s autobiography, “The Secret Life of Salvador Dali.”

In the decades ahead, Halsman and Dali would “play” together at least once a year — “an elating game,”Halsman wrote in 1972, “creating images that did not exist, except in our imaginations. Whenever I needed a striking protagonist for one of my wild ideas, Dali would graciously oblige. Whenever Dali thought of a photograph so strange that it seemed impossible to produce, I tried to find a solution.”

Usually they conspired in Halsman’s large, strobe-equipped studio at 33 West 67th Street, around the corner from St. Nicholas Arena in Manhattan. Other “sittings” took place at Dali’s home in Cadaques, in Los Angeles, and at the St. Regis Hotel, where Dali invariably stayed when he was in New York.

Their intense, prolific, 37-year collaboration is unique in the history of 20th Century art.

Do you want:

  • Ad-free access?
  • Access to our very popular daily crossword?
  • Access to daily sudoku?
  • Access to Incite Politics magazine articles?
  • Access to podcasts?
  • Access to political polls?

Our subscribers’ financial support is the reason why we have been able to offer our latest service; Audio blogs. 

Click Here  to support us and watch the number of services grow.