Philippe Halsman. Astonish Me!
Catalogue of the exhibition

Throughout his long career, Philippe Halsman was a passionate promoter of photography. When it was threatened by the advent of a new mass medium – television – he rose to the challenge and used his imagination to make photography a force to be reckoned with in the field of entertainment. Whenever he spoke in public – which he did frequently, in interviews, lectures, classes and publications – Halsman always championed the untapped creative potential of photography. He loved to recount the story of Jean Cocteau’s famous meeting with Sergei Diaghilev, at which the young Cocteau asked what he needed to do to be able to work with him, and the founder of the Ballets Russes replied: ‘Astonish me!’ The words became a catchphrase that was widely used, notably by Alexey Brodovitch, art director of Harper’s Bazaar magazine and an instructor at the Design Laboratory. To this day it encapsulates the innovative spirit in post-war photography that Halsman among others did so much to promote.

With Diaghilev’s imperative firmly in mind, Halsman threw himself into photographing the most improbable scenes and set-ups. His technical skill allowed him to explore the medium’s creative potential to the full. His experimentation reached its height in his collaboration with Salvador Dalí, which saw Dalí’s ideas given photographic form.

Thanks to the generosity of the Halsman family, who have given us unlimited access to their archives, we have been able to piece together Halsman’s creative career from its start in Paris all the way to his days in New York. We have revisited his work as a whole and, alongside his iconic photographs, have assembled a collection of attempts, try-outs, mockups, collages and published pieces that clearly demonstrate his creativity and never-ending experimentation with every aspect of the photographic image. By bringing his work together as a whole for the first time, this exhibition gives us a hitherto unseen view behind the scenes, a unique opportunity to reconstruct his practice and finally to celebrate the photographic object in its own right.

Sam Stourdzé
foreword of the catalogue

Prestel Verlag, Munich, London, New York, 2014.
320 pages ; 60 euros.

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