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When the photographer Philippe Halsman said, “Jump,” no one asked how high. People simply pushed off or leapt up to the extent that physical ability and personal decorum allowed. In that airborne instant Mr. Halsman clicked the shutter. He called his method jumpology.
The idea of having people jump for the camera can seem like a gimmick, but it is telling that jumpology shares a few syllables with psychology. As Halsman, who died in 1979, said, “When you ask a person to jump, his attention is mostly directed toward the act of jumping, and the mask falls, so that the real person appears.”
A wonderful exhibition of nearly 50 jumps that Halsman captured on film from the late 1940s through the ’50s — sometimes on commission from Life magazine — can be seen at the Laurence Miller Gallery at 20 West 57th Street in Manhattan, through Friday. The photographs feature stars of stage, screen and television; national leaders; a prima ballerina; writers; and other creative types. Except for a few earthbound choreographers, nearly everyone cooperates.
Some images involved a bit more stage direction than others, as with Halsman’s collaboration with the Surrealist Salvador Dalí from the late 1940s. The most famous of these images, “Dalí Atomicus,” shows the madcap Dalí aloft, brush and palette in hand. He is flanked by a chair and two easels (holding Dalí canvases) — all elevated, and seemingly floating, above the floor, which heightens the sense of suspension. But the main event is the great curve of water arcing across the image, along with three flying (or flung) cats in damp, disconcerted disarray. For once Dalí’s characteristic look of exaggerated surprise makes sense.
The show also includes six failed attempts at this shot, their flaws carefully noted by Halsman. I was startled to see that in these attempts the center easel holds only an empty frame. It prompted me to look more closely at the published photograph: the image on the center easel is a quite accurate depiction of the flying cats, spiky wet fur and all. It was drawn (or painted) and seamlessly inserted after the fact; the empty frame shadow is still visible on the floor. Dalí didn’t miss much when it came to Dalíesque moments.
There is a sublime silliness to Halsman’s images that can make you laugh or at least smile regardless of how often you see them. They may offer incontrovertible proof of Schiller’s claim that “all art is dedicated to joy.” Evidently the simple act of getting off the ground requires giving in to something like joy. You have to let go.
One of the purest examples of this joy is an image of Halsman himself, holding hands with a smiling Marilyn Monroe several feet off the ground. Facing his partner, he seems ecstatic, as if he cannot believe his luck. He will hang with one of the world’s most photogenic beauties for eternity. The two are caught in nearly matching, tucked-knees positions. Only a few other subjects, including Murray Kempton and Bridget Bardot, achieved a similar sense of height and compactness. (Ms. Bardot is in a one-piece bathing suit on a rocky bluff, making you wonder how she landed.)
Some images juxtapose motion and stasis to great effect. In one, Martha Graham remains seated as Merce Cunningham flies toward her in a superb vaulting leap, almost as if aiming for her head. In another, Gisele MacKenzie does a perfect “Sound of Music” leap — arms outstretched, mouth open — next to an upright piano. Her exuberance registers not at all with the drowsy dachshund ensconced on top of the instrument.
Audrey Hepburn, shot in a hedged garden, goes aloft with legs apart in an enthusiastic cheerleader manner that seems to fit her tightly wound, perfect-girl persona. But it is surprising to find a similar pose and abandon achieved by a debonair-looking man. He turns out to be Aldous Huxley, though at first he looks like Fred Astaire.
Vice President Richard M. Nixon and Ed Sullivan, both in suits, jump with button-down aplomb and surprising verve. Sullivan’s arm is raised as if he were introducing the next act; when J. Robert Oppenheimer makes a similar gesture, it seems more symbolic, as if he were reaching for the heavens.
Old habits, it seems, die hard. The retired boxer Jack Dempsey, also in a suit, goes straight up, legs together, hands positioned as if jumping rope. Harold Lloyd seems to dive downward, as if he had finally fallen from his clock.
It is important that the subjects of Halsman’s images are famous, so we can contrast the general vibe of the images — body language, energy and facial expression — with previous impressions of the subjects, as when Grace Kelly hikes her skirt in a strikingly coquettish way. Halsman’s simple device ensures that we see something we haven’t quite seen before.
It is perhaps not coincidental that he devised jumpology in the era of Action Painting, as Abstract Expressionism was sometimes called, which sowed the seeds that would soon grow into performance art. He pushed his own form, the studio portrait, to extremes, exaggerating its basic components in ways that make us more aware of them: the trust that must exist between photographer and subject; the split-second “performance” that any still camera captures; the uncontrollable revelations of character; the way we all try to rise, as it were, to the occasion of a photograph.
All these elements are distorted, possibly parodied, but also intensified. As is our understanding of how we look at a photograph, read its parts, decipher its message and draw its energy into ourselves.
“Philippe Halsman: Jump” continues through Friday at the Laurence Miller Gallery, 20 West 57th Street, Manhattan; (212) 397-3930, laurencemillergallery.com.