Philippe Halsman, Astonish me !

29.01 – 11.05.2014

“In my serious work I am striving for the essence of things and for goals which are possibly unobtainable. On the other hand, everything humorous has great attraction for me, and a childish streak leads me into all kinds of frivolous endeavour.”

Photographer Philippe Halsman had an exemplary career. Over a forty-year period, in Paris during the 1930s and in New York from 1940 on, he developed a broad range of activities (portraits, fashion, reportage, advertisements, personal projects, commissions from individuals and institutions). The Musée de l’Elysée presents the first study dedicated to his entire body of work, with a selection of over 300 pieces.

This project, produced in collaboration with the Philippe Halsman Archive, includes many exclusive unseen elements of the photographer’s work (contact sheets, annotated contact prints, preliminary proofs, original photomontages and mock-ups). The exhibition shows Philippe Halsman's creative process and reveals a unique approach to photography: a means of expression to explore.

Born in 1906 in Riga, Latvia, Halsman studied engineering in Dresden before moving to Paris, where he opened a photographic studio in 1932. His years in Paris already heralded the approach he was to develop throughout his long career. A studio and reportage photographer, Halsman took inspiration from the contemporary art scene and participated in promoting it. Though he specialised in portraiture, he also branched out into advertising and publishing, which were thriving at the time. In 1940, the German invasion brought Halsman's prosperous career to a halt, leading him to flee with his family to New York. Though initially unknown, he succeeded in establishing himself on the American market in under a year, and his studio soon became successful. Halsman stood out for his “psychological” approach to portraiture.

He distinguished himself in this area with his vast portrait gallery of celebrities (actors, industrialists, politicians, scientists, writers). Some of these images, such as Audrey Hepburn, Marilyn Monroe, Winston Churchill or Albert Einstein, became icons. He produced the largest number of covers (101) for Life magazine, the first weekly magazine to be illustrated only by photographs.

Halsman's photography is characterised by a direct approach, masterful technique and a particular attention to detail. His work testifies to his constant research and his interest in all forms of technical and aesthetic experimentation, which he applied to a wide variety of subjects. For Halsman, photography was an excellent way of giving his imagination free reign. He was especially interested in mises en scène – in the form of single images or fictional series. He met Salvador Dalí in 1941 and the artist turned out to be the ideal accomplice. Their fruitful collaboration lasted 37 years. Philippe Halsman also introduced innovations through more personal creations such as the “photo-interview book” or ‘jumpology’.

The exhibition is curated by Anne Lacoste and Sam Stourdzé, assisted by Lydia Dorner and Camille Avellan. It is made possible through support from the Terra Foundation for American Art, PKB Privatbank and the Loterie Romande.

Philippe Halsman, Astonish Me! | Video about the exhbition
Views on Marilyn | Publication by the researchers of the National Center of Competence in Research in Affective Sciences of the University of Geneva about Philippe Halsman’s photographs.