‘Dali Atomicus’ One of History’s Most Famous Photographs


By Paul Chimera

Salvador Dali Historian


If there’s any doubt that Salvador Dali did it all, try to find any artistic road on which he didn’t travel. Impossible.


One outlet through which Dali made his mark was photography. Not behind the camera (usually), but in front of it. And in creative collaboration most famously with the celebrated French photographer Philippe Halsman.


Today I want to look at Dali Atomicus of 1948, doubtlessly not only the best-known photograph with which Dali was involved, but indeed one of the most famous photographs of an entire century.




The Dali/Halsman collaboration was such a tour d’ force in the annals of creative pairings. They even did a book together – Dali’s Mustache – featuring extraordinarily clever photos of Dali’s upper lip hair in every imaginable pose, together with amusing text calculated to get a chuckle out of readers.


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Dali Atomicus took upwards of 20 takes before the duo was completely satisfied. The two creative geniuses endeavored to depict the phenomenon of intra-atomic space, in which – at the sub-atomic level – nothing touches anything else.




Various elements were hung on virtually invisible wires, while water and cats where tossed, and Dali leaped into the frame on que – until all the elements levitated for the perfect storm. (Dali was on record saying not only did the cats not mind being tossed, but that they appeared to enjoy it!)


On the right of the composition is a reproduction of Salvador Dali’s great masterpiece, Leda Atomica – itself a quintessential representation of his interpretation of quantum physics melded with the iconic Greek myth of Leda and the Swan.


What I don’t think many people realize is that the wires were retouched out. And Dali painted water and cats legs onto the canvas in the middle of the photo, sort of echoing the larger photographic tableau.


Photos of Halsman and Dali working on this project, and the persistent leaps Dali took to eventually achieve the final effect, are nearly as popular as the finished photograph itself.

(Images used under Fair Use provisions for journalistic purposes only, with acknowledgment of the estate of Philippe Halsman and copyright therein)

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