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May 30, 2024

The Story Behind “Dalí Atomicus,” One of the Most Influential Photographs Ever Taken

In 1941, American photographer Philippe Halsman met the surrealist artist Salvador Dalí in New York City and they began to collaborate in the late 1940s. The 1948 work Dalí Atomicus explores the idea of suspension, depicting three cats flying, water thrown from a bucket, an easel, a footstool and Salvador Dalí all seemingly suspended in mid-air.

The title of the photograph is a reference to Dalí’s work Leda Atomica (at that which can be seen in the right of the photograph behind the two cats.) Halsman reported that it took 28 attempts to be satisfied with the result. This is the unretouched version of the photograph that was published in LIFE magazine.

The scene was set up at Halsman’s studio in New York City. To take the photograph, Halsman used a 4×5 twin-lens reflex camera that he had designed himself. The chair at the left was held up by an assistant. Both the painting Leda Atomica and the easel behind Dalí were suspended by wires. The step stool was supported by a prop.

Real cats and real buckets of water were used. Halsman also had assistants help him throw the cats and the water. To coordinate the assistants, Halsman counted to four. On three, the assistants threw the cats and the water. On four, Dalí jumped.

The coordination and timing was difficult to get right. For example, one take was ruined because Dalí jumped too late, another because the chair obstructed Dalí's face, and a third because someone else accidentally entered the frame. At least 26 takes were made before Halsman was satisfied with the final photograph. After every take, Halsman went into the darkroom to develop and print the film, while the assistants collected and dried the cats. The whole process lasted between five and six hours.
“My assistants and I were wet, dirty, and near complete exhaustion – only the cats still looked like new.” – Philippe Halsman, after the shoot.
When the photographs were being taken, the easel behind Dalí held only an empty frame. After the final photograph was chosen, Dalí painted, directly on the print, to produce the image shown. The final version was published in LIFE in 1948, along with some of the spoiled takes.

In 2016, TIME magazine named Dalí Atomicus one of the “100 most influential photographs ever taken.” TIME credits Halsman for transforming portrait photography, as prior to Halsman, there was generally a certain distance between the subject and the photographer. The New York Times called Dalí Atomicus “probably Halsman’s most memorable single work.”


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