What is a cliché but a clever idea too widely adopted? Consider the classic picture of the bridal party jumping in mid-air, the bane of nuptials everywhere.
“Someone inevitably screws it up in each attempt, and then the bride wants it photoshopped so everyone is airborne,” a former wedding photographer complained in this long Reddit thread cruelly mocking a jumpfail. “Because jumping in formalwear is such an obvious thing to do!”
And that was the consensus:
“The jumping thing is a stupid trend.”
“Seriously, like 1% of people look attractive in this pose.”
“Jumping photos like that are pretty tacky as it is to be honest. You don’t look at that 20 years later and think ‘Wow, that was a good idea for a photo!’ No, it’s the photo you leave sitting on the USB drive and never look at for the rest of your life.”
But it was a good idea for a photo! Or at least, jumping portraiture was a clever idea in 1953, when Philippe Halsman first tried it out with Mrs. Edsel Ford. Here’s how that went:
“There was the charming matriarch of one of the great American families, and suddenly, like a pang, I felt the burning desire to photograph her jumping.
‘Are you going mad, Halsman?’ I asked myself. ‘Will you propose that she jump — a grandmother and an owner of innumerable millions of dollars?’
‘You are just scared, Philippe, you white-livered coward!’ I answered myself, since, unlike Hamlet, my inner conflicts tend more toward vulgar dialogues than refined soliloquies.”
The Latvian-American portrait photographer was neither mad nor scared, and so he got this shot:
And an artistic quirk was born. Halsman, best known for his portraits of Einstein and Dali, photographed nearly 200 boldface names in midair. In 1959, he published Jump Book, a collection of his work with some tongue-in-check observations from the man on the ground.
“This was the turning point in my hard road to jumpology,” he wrote. “I realized that deep underneath people wanted to jump and considered jumping fun.”
Halsman sagely argues that if there is any merit to graphology, the study of handwriting, then certainly jumpology qualifies. A married couple who can’t jump at the same time may have deeper issues, Halsman suggests. Crossing the arms suggests an “urge to protect dignity.” Swinging the arms to create more momentum “indicates a character that is inclined to get himself totally immersed in a plan or purpose.”
Halsman estimates that only 1-2% of his subjects refused to jump, and that these grounded individuals were all male. He notes that when he photographed a slate of political candidates, those who refused to jump inevitably lost. The “self-conscious and difficult” Dag Hammarskjöld and the “moody” Edward S. Murrow both refused to jump. Herbert Hoover “explained with kindness, ‘You see Mr. Halsman, I am not an actor and for me jumping would be like acting.’”
But Nixon jumped!
So why did jumpology jump the shark?
Because the whole medium of photography has changed in the last 70 years. Halsman’s genius was to loosen up the formality of the portrait. Now, portraiture couldn’t be any looser. When a professional photographer with a camera that can’t even post to Instagram takes our picture on someone’s Big Day, it’s a Serious Moment. That’s the last place anyone wants to show their real self.
“In a jump,” Halsman wrote, “the mask falls. The real self becomes visible. One only has to snap it for the camera.”
And here’s his real self, suitably infatuated with the real self of Marilyn Monroe.
Quick quips; lightning
“Self-respect: The secure feeling that no one, as yet, is suspicious.”
— H.L. Mencken
“Which painting in the National Gallery would I save if there were a fire? The one nearest the door of course.”
— George Bernard Shaw
“They used to photograph Shirley Temple through gauze. They should photograph me through linoleum.”
— Tallulah Bankhead
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Spontaneity gone awry
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In the eternal battle of gravity vs. levity, GWQ No. 127 is in the tank for you-know-who. Alternate headline: Why Philippe philopped. They once made a movie about Halsman called Jump! — but not so much about the jumping as about how the Nazis accused him of killing his father (Patrick Swayze) with a rock! Elements of Wit: Mastering The Art of Being Interesting can be read in mid-air. Jump on the ❤️ below with both feet.