Not just a Jump! A look through the lens of Halsman

Updated: Jan 13

Philippe Halsman was a world-renowned photographer of his time. In the 1950’s, he made a discovery in photography that he added to his work in almost every shoot he went on in the following years. This discovery was a term in which he phrased, “Jumpology.” This idealization came about while photographing Mrs. Edsel Ford.

As Phillipe put it, the moments one is in the air, their mask falls, and the true self becomes visible. As a portrait photographer, Phillipe was always ambitious on capturing real portraits. Not so much artsy and diffused, but sharp and clear. In capturing these jumps, each image reveals a true sense of the subject. Thus being, he asked each person he photographed in the following years, to jump. Almost all of them said yes, but there were a limited few that did not want this sort of picture taken of them. Some gave reasons for this, while others remained unknown. Philippe believed those who didn’t jump had up walls which they did not want to let down and that they had insecurities.

In 1959, he went on to publish the “Jump Book,” featuring many of those photos and texts of how some of those shoots went. Even the rejections. The book was a complete success and later republished by his wife Yvonne Halsman in 1986.

As in many of these photographs the setting is not so much a main focus as compared to most all other photographs. On some occasions, the pictures were done very quickly and he may have just taken them in an open hall with a quick strobe setup. However, all these photos were acquired from “normal” shoots in which he was hired to do. The setting was usually a home, office space or unique location. Therefore, they always made sense. However, the real focus was strictly the subject. The silhouette, emotions, and even the outfit were mainly all the elements that were meant to be focused on. It was all about the subject. However, there were definitely cases where he went beyond this into an artsy direction to capture a more creative image. Most especially with Dali, in which he made one of his most famous and recognizable photographs. He made many images with Dali, but the one featured in the Jump Book is my favorite.

In Figure 1 and figure 2, you see the first ever jump photos of Mrs. Edsel Ford and Mrs. Henry Ford II. They were both grandparents at the time, and these photos both seem to reveal how young and joyful they truly were. In figure 1 of Mrs. Edsel Ford, as she was a bit older, her arms are more inward, legs are together and she seems a little more content with her limbs. However she has a prominent smile that shows how much she was enjoying this moment as it brought a great feeling to her. Following in figure 2, you see Mrs. Henry Ford II. She tends to express more emotion with her legs and arms then just facial. Her arms are spread wide out and she is kicking one leg back. Jumping tends to reveal a good feeling as it is typically outside the usual comfort zone, and it expresses some kind of joy and how fun it is to live outside those walls. It seems to share similarities with how some people may get while dancing.

Fig. 1, Mrs. Edsel Ford, 1952

Fig.2 Mrs. Henry Ford II, 1952

As one begins to see more and more of these jump photos, it is not difficult to begin to see patterns. These patterns begin to deal with the silhouettes, facial expressions, height and overall ambition and intuition one incorporates into the jump.

In this book, he organizes these photographs into sections. Some of these sections include presidents of large corporations, young and old actors and actresses, authors, etc. In relation to patterns, one example would be the jumps from Max Lerner (figure 3), Walter Kerr (figure 4), and Mike Wallace (figure 5). It is no coincidence that all three are noted for their critical and analytical minds as Halsman noted.

Fig. 3, Max Lerner, 1953

Fig. 4, Walter Kerr, 1958

In these three jumps, I am most turned to Max Lerner. It seems as though he is really trying to reach or thrive toward something. He does not just seem content with what he has accomplished, but that he hopes to get somewhere even further. The way he is just reaching ever so high up and looking in the same direction. He is not leaving any focus towards smiling for the camera. It is almost like he is in complete disregard of a photo being taken. He is strictly focused on getting to the next level. You can even sort of tell this in looking at his feet! In figure 4 and 5, Walter and Mike both raise their feet to “gain height for the photo,” while Max just seems to jump as high as he can and his ambitious emotions take care of the rest.

This brings me to the time he photographed Governor Harriman at the time he was running for the democratic presidential nominee in 1956. When Philippe asked Harriman to jump, he declined. Two weeks later, Phillipe was photographing Harriman’s most competitive rival, Adlai Stevenson. When asked to jump, he did so most graciously with enthusiasm (figure 6). At this moment, Philippe knew Adlai would win, as he went on to do. A similar case happened a year prior as well, with Bevan and Gaitskell.

Fig. 5, Mike Wallace, 1957

Fig. 6, Adlai Stevenson, 1956

The one published image that was not actually of a jump, was of Van Cliburn. He denied jumping, and when asked why he replied, “There is no need for explanations.” Philippe then took a photo at this precise moment (figure 7). As visible in the photograph, his arms are behind his back, he’s standing tall, and raising his chin up high. It is so clear to see the negativity exhibited from Van at this moment in time.

Fig.7, Van Cliburn, 1958

On a contradictory note however, it is also easy to see positivity in these photos as well. Which almost all of them are, as all his subjects are typically enthusiastic, successful, well known individuals. One of my favorite photos here is that of Mel Ferrer (figure 8) as I can closely relate with it. It portrays sort of an “oh shit, lol,” moment. For starters, he is wearing a goofy hat, jumping off some kind of fountain on what appears to be a roof top. It makes you wonder what all is going on. Furthermore, his body is spread out as that of a cat when it is free falling and approaching impact. When observing Mel’s eyes, they are wide open as if something unexpected is unraveling, as if he lost control and is about to fall.

Fig. 8, Mel Ferrer, 1955

Speaking of expression, the photograph of Eddie Cantor (figure 9) also had a great one. Each part of his body including his hands, arms, legs and face, all have something crazy going on with them. His comedian stature and personality undoubtedly shows, as he looks one hundred percent goofy. Each and every individuals profession really tends to shine through when jumping. Especially those in entertainment.

Fig. 9, Eddie Canter, 1952

I would say one of the most complex of these images would easily be “Dali Atomicus” (figure 10). To accomplish the final image that you see, It took 26 triple cat throws and splashes of water. Everything is in suspension, which is how he painted during this atomic period, and there is so much going on. Dali is jumping wide-eyed with a large smile/grin, there is a chair silhouette on the left, and of course the skewed water splash and cats flying through the air. It is a very intriguing and interesting photograph. My first thought is poor cats. The top one is completely soaked and they all look like they are hating this process. But then I see how amazing it is as a whole. All the elements float so simultaneously together.

Fig. 10, "Dali Atomicus", 1948

This idea of jumpology and his series of photographs that followed, are one of the reasons Philippe Halsman is regarded as one of the greatest portrait photographers of all time. Of all his incredible works, I believe the Jumps were the most ground breaking and unlike anything else ever done. Through this series, Philippe even enters into a realm of phycology that could even be looked at in a scientific measure.