Dalí Atomicus, 1948 | Contact Sheets

Philippe Halsman made his career out of taking portraits of people jumping, an act which he maintained revealed his subjects’ true selves. 

For his friend and longtime collaborator the Surrealist painter Salvador Dalí, Halsman knew a simple jump or seated portrait would not suffice. He wanted to pay homage both to the new atomic age (physicists had recently announced that all matter hangs in a constant state of suspension) and to the unfinished painting that Dalí was painting at the time, which would become his masterpiece “Leda Atomica” (the painting was on the right, behind the cats, and unfinished at the time).

Halsman put together an elaborate scene to surround the artist that included the original work, a floating chair and an in-progress easel suspended by thin wires. He borrowed three cats, whose owners assured him that they liked to be tossed around. Halsman’s wife, Yvonne, held the chair. On the count of three, his four assistants (which included Halsman’s young daughter Irene), who stood out of the frame, threw three increasingly angry (and increasingly-stuffed-full-with-Portuguese-sardines) cats and a bucket of water into the air; and on the count of four, Dali jumped and Halsman snapped the picture. It was that simple, said Halsman.

After each attempt, Halsman developed and printed the film while Irene herded and dried off the cats. The rejected photographs had notes such as “Water splashes Dalí instead of cat” and “Secretary gets into picture.” It nonetheless took six hours and 26 takes to capture a composition that satisfied Halsman (some of these photos are below). Halsman’s original idea is to use an opaque liquid (milk) but it was abandoned for fear that viewers, fresh from the privations of World War II, would condemn it as wasteful. Another early idea involved exploding a cat in order to capture it “in suspension.”

The final result, published in LIFE magazine on 8 August 1948, evoked Dalí’s own work. What LIFE printed was different from the photo above. Before LIFE went to publication, Dalí painted an image directly onto the print at the empty easel in the middle of the photo to create an unique image for LIFE. The magazine called it “the year’s most complicated piece of photographic whimsy”.

The pair began their collaboration with a 1941 portrait of Dalí atop a New York roof. Their work together led to the absurdist (and aptly titled) book Dalí’s Mustache (1954) which ffeatured 36 views of his collaborator’s famous waxed mustache. Other compositions placed Dalí in uncanny worlds not unlike those of his own imagination. In Popcorn Nude (1949), Dalí thrusts his leg into a high kick as popcorn kernels and baguettes explode around a nude model. For In Voluptas Mors (1951), Halsman took three hours to arrange the women’s bodies so that they formed the illusion of a skull.

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