The Photograph That Made the Surreal Real
Philippe Halsman is quite possibly the only photographer to have made a career out of taking portraits of people jumping. But he claimed the act of leaping revealed his subjects’ true selves, and looking at his most famous jump, "Dalí Atomicus," it’s pretty hard to disagree.
The photograph is Halsman’s homage both to the new atomic age (prompted by physicist’ then-recent announcement that all matter hangs in a constant state of suspension) and to Dalí’s surrealist masterpiece "Leda Atomica" (seen on the right, behind the cats, and unfinished at the time). It took six hours, 28 jumps, and a roomful of assistants throwing angry cats and buckets of water into the air to get the perfect exposure.
But before settling on the "Atomicus" we know today, Halsman rejected a number of other concepts for the shot. One was the idea of throwing milk instead of water, but that was abandoned for fear that viewers, fresh from the privations of World War II, would condemn it as a waste of milk. Another involved exploding a cat in order to capture it "in suspension," though that arguably would have been a waste of cats.
Halsman’s methods were as unique as they were effective. His celebrity "jump" portraits appeared on at least seven Life magazine covers and helped usher in a new – and radically more adventurous – era of portrait photography.