The photographer counts: One… His wife Yvonne holds the chair up. Two… The assistants get ready with the water and the cats. Three… The assistants throw the cats from the right and the bucket of water from the left. Four… Salvador Dali jumps… and miliseconds later—Philippe Halsman takes the photo. Click!… Actually—28 times "Click!".
After the photo is taken: the photographer goes to the darkroom to develop it; the assistants mop the floor, catch and calm down the cats; Yvonne and Dali rest and wait for yet another shoot. As Halsman wrote in his book Halsman on the Creation of Photographic Ideas, "Six hours and twenty-eight throws later, the result satisfied my striving for perfection. (…) My assistants and I were wet, dirty, and near complete exhaustion—only the cats still looked like new".
Below you can see an unretouched version of a final photo, chosen from the other 28 taken that day. Gelatin silver photo print was done in his New York studio and Halsman used the 4 x 5 format, twin-lens reflex camera, that he, himself, had designed in 1947. (Click on the photo for a larger version.)
In the unretouched version you can see the Dali's painting "Leda Atomica" (more info about the picture itself is on the bottom of the page) on the right and an easel near the painter, that are suspended in the mid-air thanks to the piano strings. The stool support, Yvonne's hand and a part of an assistant on the left are visible too. Interestingly enough, we can see that after retouching, there was a picture "put" on the easel near the jumping artist—but the shadow from the easel still implicates an empty space. Yet another interesting mind trick on the part of the ingenious duo.
The story behind this particular photo began in 1941, when Philippe Halsman met Salvador Dali and they agreed upon artistic collaboration, which led to the 1954's book "Dali's Mustache", which featured 36 different views of the Dali's distinctive mustache.
"The two worked together on the concept for the photo, as they often did after meeting each other in the early 1940s. The two artists had Harold Edgerton's "Coronet" milk drop photo, from the 1930s, at the forefront of their discussions.
They were mesmerized by the idea of suspension captured in it. They argued back and forth on aspects such as blowing up a chicken and whether to use milk or water. Wanting to avoid animal cruelty laws in the United States and knowing that the photograph would be shown in Europe, where people wouldn't relish the idea of wasting milk, they agreed to use unharmed cats and water for the photograph." source
Below are some of the outtakes from the photoshoot.
The "Dali Atomicus" photo was given a two-page spread in LIFE magazine and overnight, the unusual photo was pirated worldwide, reprinted, and written about, with no payment to the artist. Later, the picture was included in Edward Steichen's selection, Photography in Retrospect.
Philippe Halsman (May 2, 1906, Riga, Latvia. // 1979, New York, USA.) was "born to a Jewish family of Morduch (Max) Halsman, a dentist, and Ita Grintuch, a grammar school principal, in Riga, Halsman studied electrical engineering in Dresden.
In September 1928, Halsman went on a hiking tour in the Austrian Alps with his father, Morduch. During this tour, Morduch died from severe head injuries. The circumstances were never completely clarified and Halsman was sentenced to 4 years imprisonment for patricide. The case provoked anti-Jewish propaganda and thus gained international publicity, and Albert Einstein and Thomas Mann wrote in support of Halsman. Halsman was finally released in 1931, under the condition that he leave Austria for good, never to return." source
"He arrived in New York in 1940, with little English, no money, no contacts and a camera. Within two years his work appeared on the cover of Life magazine, beginning a 30 year association with the magazine. Life published 101 covers by Halsman—a record unmatched by any other photographer . (…)
Halsman's big break in New York came when he met Connie Ford, a model who agreed to pose for him in exchange for prints for her portfolio.
When Halsman showed the resulting pictures of Ford against an American flag to the cosmetics company Elizabeth Arden they used the image to launch a national advertising campaign for "Victory Red" lipstick. A year later he was commissioned by Life to photograph new hat designs. His portrait of a model in a Lily Daché hat was the first of his many covers for Life.
In the 1950s Halsman photographed a group of comedians from the TV channel NBC including Bob Hope and Groucho Marx. Each comedian performed while Halsman shot pictures, sometimes taking 300 frames in a single session. Photographing the comedians in action inspired Halsman to produce his famous "jump" pictures, which capture noteworthy people, from Richard Nixon to the Duke and Duchess of Windsor, mid-air, jumping for the camera. Halsman felt that asking a person to jump distracted them from posing for the camera and so revealed more of their natural personality." source
"In 1958 Halsman was listed in Popular Photography's "World's Ten Greatest Photographers", and in 1975 he received the Life Achievement in Photography Award from the American Society of Magazine Photographers." source
"The picture depicts the mythological queen of Sparta Leda, with the swan. Leda is a frontal portrait of Dali's wife, Gala, who is seated on a pedestal with her left arm around a swan which extends his beak as if attempting to kiss her, but also as if whispering into her ear. Different objects such as a book, a set square, two stepping stools and an egg float around the main figure. In the background on both sides the rocks of Cap Norfeu, (located on the Costa Brava in Catalonia, between Roses and Cadaqués intend to define the location of the image. (…)
After the atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima, Dali took his work in a new direction based on the principle that the modern age had to be assimilated into art if art was to be truly contemporary. Dali acknowledged the discontinuity of matter, incorporating a mysterious sense of levitation into his Leda Atomica. Just as one finds that at the atomic level particles do not physically touch, so here Dali suspends even the water above the shore—an element that would figure into many other later works. Every object in the painting is carefully painted to be motionless in space, even though nothing in the painting is connected. Leda looks as if she is trying to touch the back of the swan's head, but doesn't do it." source