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TO FEBRUARY 7
It does not bode well for a major photographic retrospective when the curators begin by describing the photographer’s subjects as “beautiful,” “powerful,” “celebrities,” and “politicians.” And indeed, Philippe Halsman’s work in the ’40s and ’50s consisted mostly of bland, if well-compensated, portraits of movie stars and other famous personages for Life magazine. (Interestingly, the main exceptions to his early complacency are his handful of portraits of African-Americans, including Dorothy Dandridge, Marian Anderson, and Eartha Kitt.) Fortunately, by the mid-’60s, Halsman (1906-1979) grew more daring, particularly with a run of velvety black portraits that include a crying Joan Baez, a jarringly contemplative Sammy Davis Jr., and, best of all, Bobby Fischer, the troubled chess champion, who hovers, full of icy duality, above a sharply delineated chessboard. The retrospective also spotlights the photographer’s signature “jump” series, in which subjects allowed themselves to be photographed while airborne. Halsman once explained that “when you ask a person to jump, his attention is mostly directed toward the act of jumping and the mask falls so that the real person appears.” Startlingly, he’s often right. The Duke and Duchess of Windsor (pictured) appear affectionate but ramrod-straight, Audrey Hepburn exudes carefree charm, and then-Vice President Richard Nixon looks constipated but willing to play to the camera. Yvonne Halsman talks about her more than 40 years of working with her husband at noon Thursday, Dec. 3, and the gallery’s curator of photographs, Mary Panzer, will lead a tour of the exhibit, which runs through Feb. 7, at noon Thursday, Dec. 10. All at the National Portrait Gallery, 8th & F Sts. NW. Free. (202) 357-2700. (Louis Jacobson)