Six Questions for Austin Ratner about the photographer Philippe Halsman
[Scott Horton is a Contributing Editor of Harper's Magazine and writes No Comment for Harper's online (Courtesy, Harper's).]
Austin Ratner has just made his debut as a novelist with a remarkable work based on the tragedy-filled life of Philippe Halsman, the iconic American photographer of the post-war years. The work documents a triumph of human spirit over tremendous adversity. I put six questions to Austin Ratner about his book.
1. Your novel focuses on Philippe Halsman, a New York photographer whose work gained international repute in the forties and fifties, but you write that your work is not so much a biography as a tribute to Halsman, just as Rodin’s sculpture of Balzac is a tribute rather than an example of verisimilitude. But your novel is filled with a vast collection of meticulous historical details. How did you settle on Halsman as a subject, and how do you distinguish historical detail from fiction in your approach to him?
I had Halsman’s famous photograph of Einstein hanging in my bedroom as a kid. (I was a nerd.) It’s the photo Halsman took at Princeton in 1947 during their conversation about the atom bomb, where Einstein told Halsman, rather ominously, “As long as there is man, there will be war.” But I didn’t know it was Halsman who took the photo until 2002, when I stumbled across a reference to the “Austrian Dreyfus Affair.” I learned then about Halsman’s photography and that Halsman suffered something very tragic early in his life before he went on to make these photographs for Life magazine that typified the outlook of postwar America—happy, funny, sexy, full of joie de vivre. And he made all these exuberant pictures of famous people jumping in the air too. Here was an individual who seemed to embody the ravages of the history of the twentieth century and also the miraculous healing and progress that that century saw. And his story was more or less unknown. I was fascinated.
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