Few portrait photographers could claim to be as prolific, or as well-regarded, as Philippe Halsman. One of the premier photographers of the 20th Century, by any measure, the Latvian native shot a whopping 101 covers for LIFE magazine and regularly shot for TIME. He counted Salvador Dali, Jean Cocteau and other notable artists and cultural figures among his friends, and produced consistently strong work throughout his career.
Most widely known, perhaps, for his shot Dali Atomicus (which shows the Spanish surrealist floating alongside cats, chairs and blobs of water), Halsman seemed to take his work so seriously that he could afford to let it be playful, exuberant and downright fun. In fact, this signature levity emerged from strict, self-imposed rules that could be capsulized in a simple dictum: “Make it simple, and make it interesting.”
Now an exhibition and book, both called Astonish Me!, shed more light on the process involved in creating his work, while revealing rarely seen Halsman photos. Among some of the most surprising images are his shot of an apparently floating Maharishi Mahesh Yogi; a gobsmacked-looking Muhammad Ali; and Winston Churchill, evidently lost in thought, shot from the back. Revealing, too, is a picture of a hardly recognizable Marilyn Monroe acting as if she is being scared by a monster, and Anjelica Huston poking her head out from a bed of flowers.
And Halsman’s process? In short, he was as interested in psychology as he was in photography, and used it to help him produce high-quality work. He’d research his subjects’ interests, for example, and spend hours engaging with them on those topics. This artful melding of psychology and portraiture allowed his work to be frank, honest and playful.
“He wanted people to forget the camera,” Irene Halsman, his daughter, tells TIME. “He was genuinely interested in them. He really wanted to portray their essence.”
Astonish Me! runs at the Musée de l’Élysée in Lausanne, Switzerland from January 29 to May 11, 2014.
Richard Conway is a reporter for LightBox at TIME.