Philippe 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.

Most people stiffen with self-consciousness when they pose for a photograph. Lighting and fine camera equipment are useless if the photographer cannot make them drop the mask, at least for a moment, so he can capture on his film their real, undistorted personality and character.

Philippe Halsman
© Philippe Halsman | Magnum Photos

Philippe Halsman was born in Riga and began to take photographs in Paris in the 1930s. He opened a portrait studio in Montparnasse in 1934, where he photographed André Gide, Marc Chagall, André Malraux, Le Corbusier and other writers and artists, using an innovative twin-lens reflex camera that he had designed himself. He arrived in the United States in 1940, just after the fall of France, having obtained an emergency visa through the intervention of Albert Einstein.

In the course of his prolific career in America, Halsman produced reportage and covers for most major American magazines, including a record 101 covers for Life magazine. His assignments brought him face-to-face with many of the century's leading personalities.

© Philippe Halsman | Magnum Photos

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