Behind the Image: J. Robert Oppenheimer by Philippe Halsman • Magnum Photos

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Science & Technology

Behind the Image: J. Robert Oppenheimer by Philippe Halsman

The photographer’s account of coming face-to-face with one of the most influential physicists and so-called “father of the atomic bomb”

Philippe Halsman

Philippe Halsman American physicist J. Robert Oppenheimer. 1958. © Philippe Halsman | Magnum Photos

American physicist J. Robert Oppenheimer (1904-1967) is most famous for being among those who are credited with being the “father of the atomic bomb”. His work led to the first atomic bomb being successfully detonated in July 16, 1945, in the Trinity test in New Mexico. The physicist later remarked that it brought to mind words from the Hindu scripture the Bhagavad Gita: “Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds.” In August of the year, the weapons were used in the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Oppenheimer would go on to lobby for international control of nuclear power.

In the late 1930s Oppenheimer published a series of influential papers on astrophysics. The final one of these was filed in July of 1939, Oppenheimer and one of his students, Hartland Snyder, produced a paper “On Continued Gravitational Attraction”, which predicted the existence of what are today known as black holes.

When Philippe Halsman met Oppenheimer in 1958, it was to take his portrait for a commission for the Saturday Evening Post. In the book Halsman Portraits, the photographer recounts this meeting and the critical reception to his photographs.

Philippe Halsman American physicist J. Robert Oppenheimer. 1958. © Philippe Halsman | Magnum Photos

"I was almost trembling with excitement, not because I was going to meet a fascinating and controversial man, but because I was about to face one of the most highly developed brains of our time."

- Philippe Halsman

“I was driving to the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton to photograph J. Robert Oppenheimer for the “Adventures of the Mind” series for the Saturday Evening Post. I was almost trembling with excitement, not because I was going to meet a fascinating and controversial man, but because I was about to face one of the most highly developed brains of our time.

I remembered being told that, in order to read the Vedas in the original, Oppenheimer had mastered Sanskrit in three months. Even as a youngster Oppenheimer was totally devoid of any other interest but science. Therefore, when he entered college, his worried parents made a special effort to get him an out-going and sociable roommate, hoping that Robert would fall under his influence. Instead the roommate grew more and more studious, gave up his interest in tennis and pretty girls and ended up becoming a college professor.

I thought of Oppenheimer’s dramatic life, especially the triumph of the Manhattan Project which, under his direction, produced the atomic bomb. I thought, too, of the tragic trail in which Oppenheimer was denied security clearance and forbidden to leave the United States. I found it impossible to believe that Oppenheimer was capable of being disloyal to his country, and my sympathy was with him. But how to photograph such a man?

Philippe Halsman US physicist Robert Oppenheimer. 1958. © Philippe Halsman | Magnum Photos
Philippe Halsman US physicist Robert Oppenheimer. 1958. © Philippe Halsman | Magnum Photos

"I have been haunted by those extraordinary Oppenheimer eyes, particularly by the pain, the hurt I find in them"

- Philip Stern, author of "The Oppenheimer Case"

Oppenheimer greeted us in his study. He was opening his morning mail and suggested that I start shooting. I got a few meaningless pictures of him reading his mail.

I wanted, however, a confrontation between his eyes and my lens, and I started to talk about his trial. He looked up and, when I expressed my indignation that the man who had headed the secret Manhattan Project had become a suspect, his face changed. His eyes took on a hurt and accusing expression, and I captured it at the very moment when he looked at me. Later this picture was published in Life and subsequently on the cover of The Oppenheimer Case, by Philip Stern.

Stern described the impact of the photograph in his preface: “Although I never met J. Robert Oppenheimer, I have, in once sense, felt his presence keenly while writing this book. For more than two years the remarkable photograph on the dust jacket has stared from the wall of my writing room, and I have been haunted by those extraordinary Oppenheimer eyes, particularly by the pain, the hurt I find in them.”