Halsman's 1950 portrait of Marlon BrandoAfter seeing this picture on local photographer Mark Griffith’s Flickr stream, I followed his link to the Jumping Project Flickr Pool looking for tips on taking jump shots and discovered that the pool was formed in response to the work of Philippe Halsman. I remembered seeing something about a book of jumping portraits by him on BoingBoing or somewhere so I went looking for the book. It’s not in my library, alas, but three other books of his work were: Halsman: a Retrospective (pictured at left), Halsman: Sight and Insight, and Halsman at Work co-authored with his wife Yvonne.

I didn’t know his name, but I knew many of the pictures. For example the classic head shot of Einstein is one of his. Google image search turns up a quick overview. Halsman had over 100 photos on the cover of LIFE magazine.

Retrospective is a collection of photos with only a little bit of commentary and all of the commentary in that book is also present in Sight and Insight which has extensive remembrances about the pictures and their subjects from Halsman. It’s a fascinating glimpse into the personalities of some near-mythical figures. Halsman at Work has not just Philippe’s recollections, but also wife and assistant Yvonne’s and includes some of Yvonne’s photographs, many showing the set up used to produce the portraits which is extreme photographer eye candy.

Each of the books has a few of his jumping portraits and they are uniformly delightful, cracking the veneer of subjects from Richard Nixon to Audrey Hepburn (who if you weren’t in love with her before, seeing her jump should do the trick), Edward Steichen, J. Robert Oppenheimer, the Duke and Duchess of Windsor, Marilyn Monroe.

Halsman’s commentary highlights the fact that a photographer’s most important tool is between his ears. And for a portrait photographer that goes double since not only does he have to be an absolute master of the mechanics of taking the photograph he also has to engage with his subject on a level that will distract them from the fact that they’re having their picture taken at all. That Halsman was able to do this with the likes of Churchill and Dali and Einstein implies the brain he was carrying around was pretty amazing.