When two creative masterminds meet, you’d expect the results to be explosive; but when Jean Cocteau arrived, half an hour late, at Philippe Halsman’s New York studio in 1949, it seemed things were going to fall flat. “To my immense disappointment,” Halsman recalls in his book Halsman: Sight and Insight. “I saw that instead of my becoming the instrument of his imagination, he was ready to be the instrument of mine.”
“It proved that even people who are supposed to be fountains of imagination cannot spurt on too short a notice,” he adds wryly.
Here, writer Charlotte Jansen, revisits that night through Halsman’s stories of what went on behind the scenes, revealing an amusing and intimate insight into the practices of both artists at the peak of their careers.
At the time of the historic shoot, in 1949, both artists were already well-respected in their fields: Halsman had relocated from his Montparnasse studio to New York at the beginning of the 1940s, and was established as one of the city’s best-known portrait photographers, and had shot Albert Einstein, Humphrey Bogart, Elizabeth Taylor and Lauren Bacall, among many other famous names. Cocteau, meanwhile, was a published author, accomplished filmmaker, and distinguished member of Paris’ bohemian circles, frequently in the company of the likes of Picasso, Edith Piaf, Coco Chanel and Jean Genet.
"Halsman’s brief was to capture on camera what goes on inside a poet’s mind"
Halsman’s brief was to capture on camera what goes on “inside a poet’s mind,” for a three-page photo essay commissioned by LIFE Magazine, coinciding with the US release of Cocteau’s film, L’Aigle à Deux Têtes (The Eagle With Two Heads). No stranger to the caprices of avant-garde artists – in 1941, Halsman began his famous 37-year-long collaboration and friendship with Salvador Dali – the photographer had assembled an idiosyncratic array of props for The Frivolous Prince (a moniker the writer gained in the Bohemian artistic circles he mixed in, and the title of a volume he published at twenty-two), including a live boa constrictor and a dozen trained doves. The dancer Leo Coleman was also part of the entourage, alongside a “girl with a classically beautiful face” and a “classically perfect body”: Enrica Soma, a 19-year-old model and prima ballerina who had appeared on the cover of LIFE herself in 1947, where she was spotted by the filmmaker John Huston. She became his fourth wife in 1950.
Cocteau’s only requests were for the shoot to take place at night, and for “a man without skin,” a plastic anatomical model of a man that could be opened up to see its organs to be present. Halsman obliged.
The scene was set, but the atmosphere was prickly. “I described the pictures I had in mind to Cocteau, who listened with apparent contemptuousness.” Halsman wrote. Luckily, the master portrait photographer – who created a record-breaking 101 covers for LIFE Magazine over his career – knew how to coax the best from even the most intractable of subjects. Halsman photographed Cocteau against a black background, as dove droppings fell, clothes were stripped off, and the boa constrictor was done away with. Cocteau performed, despite his initial reticence, and to Halsman’s delight, “with amazing flair and acting talent.”
Many of the images Halsman directed referenced Cocteau’s seminal works: replaying motifs from the film that made Cocteau famous, The Blood of a Poet (1930) and his critically lauded feature, Beauty and the Beast (1946).
The real magic happened, Halsman remembers, when Coleman took his clothes off, revealing a “magnificently muscled body.” For Cocteau, who never hid his sexuality, it was love at first sight – according to Halsman – and he tenderly offered the dancer his scarf, for fear of the now naked Coleman catching cold.
One of the resulting pictures of the pair depicts Cocteau and Coleman apparently “floating in a room,” an image that demonstrates Halsman’s surrealist sympathies and his early interest in using tricks of the camera to suspend gravity. Soon after the shoot with Cocteau in 1949, Halsman began to develop this in his seminal “Jumpology” series in the 1950s, for which he asked his celebrity subjects to leap up and down in front of his lens.
Another iconic image of Cocteau, Coleman and Soma – Cocteau apparently painting Soma’s face, which is contained within a picture frame – happened for practical reasons, Halsman explains in his book – Coleman’s supine body positioned simply as a means to hold up the frame, but also making the image so distinctive in its composition and erotic frisson.
Yet one of the most unusual pictures shot that day was not included in the photo essay. Halsman had wanted “to show a drawing come to life,” and had positioned the two models, Soma and Coleman, under a giant sheet of white paper, Cocteau standing above them, reaching over with a brush, as if he were painting them. Halsman’s editors at Life considered the image too provocative for publication because it showed Soma’s nipple. They suggested removing the nipple, but Halsman refused. He held onto the photograph, and twenty years later, it ended up as the unforgettable cover of Francis Steegmuller’s definitive biography of Cocteau.
Of all of the pictures they took that day, Cocteau’s personal favourite was one that also perhaps captures Halsman’s talent most incisively. Published as the centrefold on the first page of the spread in February, 1949, the picture is a “Januslike double profile,” of Cocteau, shot simply against a black background. Halsman, always inventive and experimental with his methods, cut two negatives and sandwiched them together to create the image. Years later, Halsman discovered that Cocteau had paid the photographer “the ultimate compliment.” He had reproduced the photograph as a drawing, which he used as his signature.
"Of all of the pictures they took that day, Cocteau’s personal favourite was one that also perhaps captures Halsman’s talent most incisively"
Halsman humbly guessed that the image resonated with the theme of Cocteau’s film, The Eagle with Two Heads, but clearly there was something profound in that picture, that Cocteau recognised as himself. Halsman suggested that the perfect portrait should unite a subject’s inner and outer self in a single image, capturing their look as much as their character; to “be the testimony of how this person looked and what kind of human being he was.”
Looking at the picture now, it is as if the late French artist speaks the words, as inscribed on his tombstone: “Je reste avec toi.” (I stay with you).