The Legacy of Philippe Halsman is Coming to the Blockchain
The Collector's Guide to Blockchain Photography
The legacy of American mid-century photographer Philippe Halsman is one that has left an indelible mark on the history of photography. Known widely for his photographs of luminaries such as Albert Einstein, Salvador Dali, and Marilyn Monroe, Halsman charted a career as one of the most prominent portraitists of prominent public figures while experimenting rigorously with the conventions of the genre.
Now, 43 years after the photographer’s death, Oliver Halsman is bringing his grandfather’s work to the blockchain. We sat down with Oliver to learn more about Philippe’s life and legacy, and to hear about the plans to release his archive as NFTs.
PhotoVerso: Ok Oliver, so let’s dig into The Halsman Archive, the collection you’ll be dropping at the end of this month. First off, who was Philippe Halsman, and what is your relationship to him?
Oliver Halsman Rosenberg: Gm Greg, thanks for the opportunity to talk about our genesis collection. Philippe Halsman was my grandfather. He passed away when I was a child so I never truly got to know him irl, but growing up around his images, and stories, and becoming the archivist and co-director of the archive I feel like I deeply know him.
PhotoVerso: I’m curious to know: At what point in your life did you begin to understand the legacy of your grandfather? And what does that legacy mean to you now?
OHR: My mother has always been very outgoing and proud of her father. She would carry around a pack of postcards of some of my grandfather’s most iconic images, and meet strangers and within five minutes she would be showing the photos and telling them the stories behind the images. As I child I can remember her laying out three prints of Audrey Hepburn and asking me which one I thought was printed the best and why. So the images and stories were ingrained in me from the beginning. When I saw them out in the world (on posters, bootleg t-shirts, or in galleries/museums) I understood that he had left a huge mark on the world, and it was a combination of being proud and also feeling intimidated to follow in his footsteps.
I’m a spiritual person and I like the practice of honoring your ancestors. In many ways I feel like my grandparents (Halsman’s wife Yvonne was his lifelong assistant) are still alive in the world based on the time and energy my family is putting into maintaining their legacy on a daily basis. In archiving all of his work I have come across so many celebrities that were so famous in their days and mostly forgotten now, so I realize that a legacy is fragile and easily disappears if the mechanics are not there to keep it alive. Many people know my grandfather’s images, but they don't realize the same person took all of them, so legacy is multi-layered. There is the physical archive we need to maintain, and there is the oral-history and intangible part of my grandfather’s life and inspiration which can only be understood by knowing all the nuances of personal history woven with global history.
The world is flooded with images now, and traditional magazine licensing (which sustained the archive the last 30 years has been drying up), so to maintain the legacy we need to find new ways to introduce his work and life to the next generation.
PhotoVerso: Can you talk about what brought you into the world of NFTs?
OHR: As soon as I found out about NFTs Oct 2019 I thought it would be a good way to raise funds for a Halsman documentary film I had been working on. At that point most NFTs were still in the animated “Rare Pepe” trading card style. I made some Halsman tarot card style prototypes that I wasn't happy with, and then just watched the NFT space expand and contract over the following years.
As the archivist of my grandfather's collection I wanted to do something other than selling a .jpg of his iconic work, so I came up with a few strategies to bring his work on-chain in ways that I had not yet seen. Halsman was a technologist and I'm sure if he was alive today he would look for ways to play with this new medium of sharing and owning images.
PhotoVerso: For collectors out there, what are some of the things you want them to know about the drop?
OHR: I have always been fascinated with the physical archive, and I wanted to bring this tactile and fragile part of photographic history on-chain. I see my grandparent’s writing on the envelopes as the metadata of the shoot and path of dissemination of images from artist to publication and back to archive. I made still life arrangements of the contents of the envelopes from some of his most iconic shoots, or assignments or personal explorations which I thought were beautiful. There are around 75 or so images in the collection, and the collection will be released on SuperRare one or two NFTs at a time every week (our twitter account will have all the details). The genesis drop will be Friday, Sept. 16.
The collection won’t be pre-revealed, so it will be like a surprise for everyone every week. The NFTs will be offered auction style, with a starting bid of 1 ETH at the beginning of the collection, and then raising the starting bid incrementally over the course of the entire collection. We don’t have a huge twitter following but I’d like to engage our followers and give them a choice to vote on which NFT is released for the next drop, or give the winners of one weeks auction a choice of names for the next week’s drop.
Halsman was playful and experimental in his own work, and I want to explore different strategies. I have a lot more Halsman NFT projects in the works, so it’s great to build a list of collectors to allowlist for future collections, or offer a utility for collectors to do a zoom with my mom to hear behind the scene stories from my grandfather’s shoots, etc.
PhotoVerso: Can you talk about some of your goals for this collection and how do you hope to use the funds generated from the sales?
OHR: Halsman wrote a book titled Halsman on the Creation of Photographic Ideas which was like a manifesto on creative techniques. One of his rules was: the rule of the added unusual feature. So when bringing his work on-chain I wanted to do something I have not yet seen in the NFT photo space, which was to add the envelope metadata into the image itself.
There is such a richness of analog work that will never be known, so I wanted the collection to be a first in that sense. Another goal is to make my mom happy and introduce Halsman’s work to a new generation. I love how accessible and decentralized collecting art has become, and we are thrilled to add a new generation of fans who for the first time will be able to own something never offered before.
Funds will be used to maintain the archive. You can see in the photos themselves how fragile the analog material is.
PhotoVerso: What do you hope audiences take away from spending time with your grandfather’s work?
OHR: I hope to introduce a new generation to my grandfather's work. By correlating the analog ledger with the digital ledger I hope to find a new way not just the image, but the process and tactile nature/history of photography can be appreciated by a new generation of collectors and lovers of photography. Each NFT has so many stories within it, so I hope that the eyes and the brain are activated. My grandfather had a few bodies of work, his psychological portraiture, his experimental work with artists like Dali and Cocteau, his glamour work, and his Jump series. I hope that our new audience will be inspired and want to learn more about his amazing life and why he made the artistic choices he made.
PhotoVerso: So after this initial drop, what more do you have in store for the Halsman archive?
OHR: I have a tremendous archive at my fingertips, and there is so much amazing content which has never been seen, so there are a lot of ideas waiting to be activated, including a few other Halsman NFT projects I have been working on, as well as books and exhibitions in the works. One exciting project in the works is to open up a Halsman museum in his hometown of Riga, Latvia, in the house he grew up in.
Another main goal is to finish the Documentary film on his life that I started making pre-pandemic. In the short term there are some projects which I can't talk about yet, but I can say there is an amazing book on Halsman by Henry Leutwyler published by Steidl coming out sometime soon, and we can also finally announce that Halsman's photograph of Edward Steichen jumping was selected as the Official fair image for the 25th edition of Paris Photo this November (where I'll also be speaking on a panel about NFTs and photography). There is always something happening, our inboxes are insane.
PhotoVerso: Thanks for your time Oliver!
OHR: Thank you!