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Friday, July 8, 2016

Philippe Halsman,
  halsman on the
  creation of photographic Ideas

Hat tip to Ming Thein for pointing me to this excellent, taut, little book. Creativity being an interest of mine I immediately went out and read it. Halsman is, among other things, quite funny. He also understands quite a lot about creativity and how to manage it. We now have Brain Science about all this stuff and can use our Nuclear Powered Brain Scanners, but apparently Halsman had a lot of it sorted out too, somewhat earlier.

Getting your hands on a physical copy of the book may be a bit of a challenge, if you choose to acquire one.

Anyways, he starts by stating the problem which is, essentially, how on earth am I to make a picture that stands out? To my amusement, he speaks of "a billion snapshots a year" and how one might emerge from this "ocean of dullness" which are familiar sentiments to us today, albeit a few orders of magnitude different. He's coming at this largely from the point of view of an ad man, trying to think up ways to express a product's concept clearly and powerfully in a single frame. This is perhaps the clearest and most obvious use case, so I applaud that, and note that Halsman did much more than that.

But to be clear, the problem that Halsman is trying to solve here is identical to Adams' "pre-visualization" problem, about which I have written at some length. The problem is how to get from a not-particularly-visual concept to an actual in-the-minds-eye picture.

While Halsman was most assuredly a major player in his day, he seems to have been to a degree consigned to history's dustbin. It's peculiar because his oeuvre contains iconic photo after iconic photo, but I think perhaps he was a little too much a cut-rate Man Ray to really be remembered as top-tier. Or perhaps he simply didn't have a very good PR man.

Then he has two sections, which boil down to "things to think about" and "things to do" by way of cajoling ones imagination into producing a good idea. He rightly treats the problem of converting an idea in to an actual picture as a separate and not very interesting problem, not worth that much (indeed, he explicitly goes through a story illustrating a case in which the idea was worth 90% and the execution worth 10%, and makes it clear he thinks this is about right).

Things to think about he terms "rules" for reasons which are unclear. They represent a sequence of things to test, mentally, against the specific photographic problem. Will a very direct approach work? What if I bring in some unusual technique? If that doesn't produce a solution, consider adding something unusual to the picture? Or removing something expected? No? Well, what if I were to do several things at once? If that still does not work, perhaps some sort of direct translation of an idea into a symbolic representation will work.

If you read Halsman too literally, in these Photoshop-infested times, you're likely to wind up with gimmicky looking "trick photography" pictures, unfortunately. What is perhaps more generally valuable is to explicitly write down a list of your "standard ideas" and keep that list handy when you're struggling with a problem. What tropes have you used successfully in the past? What approach is exemplified by some picture that you love? Write them all down, and go through the list as necessary. Yours might be:

  • Bare flash
  • Ansel Adams black skies
  • Macro
  • Low camera angles
  • Desaturated colors

It strikes me as perhaps wisest to especially note any techniques and tropes you have a hard time remembering. You probably have a few of those which slip out of your grasp just when you need them, "there was that one photo, what was it.. It did.. a thing.. damn it." Write that stuff down, and go through your list from time to time, especially when you're trying to visualize some picture. The end result, probably, is not that you get the perfect solution right off the list, but that the list stimulates the mind to produce a new and different answer.

The second half of the book is, roughly, things to do. These are specific actions you can take to stimulate the imagination. These boil down to much the same steps I've outlined many times before, plus one I have not.

The one I leave out is "talk to people about your problem" (brainstorming, in some sense). The ones left in are "think about the problem hard, look at things, look at photographs" and then finally try to recall your problem at moments of inattention, at moments when your mind is on other things. In the shower, as you fall asleep, immediately after waking. I've talked about this at length, this process of examining raw material in the form of photographs and other objects, of thinking very hard about your problem, and then of letting go so as to allow the subconscious mind to work quietly in the dark.

The new one, of talking to people, is quite wonderful and new to me. In hindsight of course it is blindingly obvious, but it had not occurred to me,

All up, I found it an interesting, and very amusing, read, and I learned a thing, so that's cool.


  1. To see a significant impact (still occurring) from Halsman just look for his book of jumping people. He was having people jump on trampolines half a century ago and capturing the unusual point of view of people suspended in time, in mid-air. So many dance, fashion and editorial photographers have aped this idea since then that it seems almost generic; except that no one had done it before Halsman. Also, do a search and see if you can find any of his home made Christmas cards. They are priceless.He was a brilliant refuge who made America more interesting and, for a while, more international.

    1. philippehalsman.com has a pretty great selection of stuff, including many of the cards.

      He seems to have been cursed to have good ideas that are easy to copy badly ;) There's a *ton* of overdone and kind of twee ideas that seem to have orginated with Halsman, and in his defense there were not usually twee when he did them. This is a sin reserved for the copies.

      His photograph of Ansel Adams is sheer brilliance and, notably, makes Adams look weirdly like Zack Arias.

    2. Also, while his conceptual work is very strong, it seems appropriate to mention that he straight portraits are also pretty great. He could light, he could push the button at the right time.

  2. "The new one, of talking to people, is quite wonderful and new to me. In hindsight of course it is blindingly obvious, but it had not occurred to me."
    Well, isn't your blog an attempt to start a conversation each and every time you post? Not the same as using your voice, but perhaps using your Voice (apologies if that is a bit tricksy)?

  3. In terms of economy of words, and essential to-the pointedness, my best critic/consultant is my partner. Isn't yours yours?