Philippe Halsman was born in 1906 in Riga, Latvia. His father was a dentist and his mother a teacher. The family spent summer vacations in Europe and he was particularly taken by the great portraits. The influence of which remained constant throughout his life.
Halsman first became interested in photography at the age of 15, after discovering his father’s old view-camera in the attic. By 18 he had finished school and went to Dresden, Germany, where he studied engineering.
Around this time, while on a trip in the Austrian Tyrol, an area rife with anti-Semitism, Halsman was reportedly accused of his father's murder and sentenced to ten years hard labor/solitary confinement. Knowing that he had been falsely accused, his sister championed his release, getting support from important European intellectuals, Sigmund Freud and Alfred Einstein among others, who all endorsed his innocence. He was eventually pardoned and released in 1930.
Halsman then moved to Paris where he pursued his interest in art and literature. His approach to portraiture was influenced by his favorite writers, Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky, who had explored human nature, with psychological depth and honesty.
He gave up studying engineering and committed himself to photography. He designed his own camera and explored the effects of artificial light. He became well known for his portraits and actors and writers sought him out. Magazines asked him to work for them and he participated in photographic exhibits. He was soon regarded as one of Paris’ preeminent portraitists.
During WWII, as Paris was invaded, Halsman’s family fled to America. Halsman himself had difficulty – being Latvian there was an immigration quota that was filled for years to come. But once again, with the intervention of Einstein, Halsman’s name was added to a list of writers and artists in Europe who were given special visas.
With no reputation to speak of in America, Halsman had to begin again. He worked for a photo agency and started to look for clients for himself. He slowly rebuilt his career and reputation as one of the top portraitists, this time in America.
Shortly after his arrival in New York; Halsman met Salvador Dali. The two immediately hit it off. They had prolific collaboration that spanned 37 years.
Halsman’s long and renowned career included 101 LIFE magazine covers and a book titled, Philippe Halsman's Jump Book which was published in 1959. The book contained 178 photographs of celebrities jumping and a discussion of the concept in which he stated "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."