Photography Played a Starring Role in Dali’s Life and Work
By Paul Chimera
Salvador Dali Historian
Photography played a major role in the most photographed international artist ever: Salvador Dali. Indeed, photographers for decades loved focusing their lenses on the artist, because his colorful and legendary antics – together with his facial expressions, facial hair, and fanatical poses – all made for amusing and provocative pictures.
And unlike so many celebrities, who generally shun the paparazzi, Dali devoured the attention. Many have said his early fame in America was solidified when his black & white photo portrait landed on the cover of TIME magazine.
Far more important was how Dali employed elements of photography in his art. We know he worked frequently from photographs (while also using plenty of live human models and stuffed animal models as well. An example of the latter were seagulls that appear in Dali’s huge masterpiece, “Tuna Fishing,” and the dove that’s found in his large canvas, “The Ecumenical Council”).
Dali used a photograph of a horse in painting the main element in his monumental 1957 work, “Santiago El Grade,” and a highlight on the neck of the horse ended up as a kind of hidden image in the finished painting, where it appears to take the form of an angel – repeated just beyond the horse’s neck as the angel rises toward the heavens.
Probably the most famous photograph owing to the collaboration of Salvador Dali and photographer Philippe Halsman is “Dali Atomicus.” It gets its name from one of the elements suspended in the intra-atomic-like scene: Dali’s terrific painting, “Leda Atomica.”
Much has been written and illustrated about how this unique photo came to be, with many takes of Dali jumping on command in a coordinated effort to have all the elements appear to float in air simultaneously.
The creative partnership with Halsman was a long and productive one, and I have reason to believe that, of all the people Halsman captured so artfully on film, his favorite was the Catalan master of surrealism.
Their special friendship and artistic connection came together in the charming little book, “Dali’s Mustache,” which featured a wonderful collection of photos of Dali in various amusing and outrageous poses, together with delightful text that helped make the first edition a collector’s item. Some of those images appear here.
Photography also figured in Dali’s work in less dramatic, or at least less commonly known ways. For example, the large version of Dali’s “Lincoln in Dalivision” (this being a shorter version of the work’s title), which hangs in the Teatro-Museo Dali in Figueres, Spain, was actually painted on photographic paper.
Dali even painted directly on photographic images, such as his mixed-media portrait of King Juan Carlos of Spain.
And an obscure and sexy photo of a young woman leaning over in a pair of hose and loafers served as the model for the woman in Dali’s ultra-provocative oil painting, “Young Virgin Auto-Sodomized by Her Own Chastity.”
Let’s not forget, too, Dali’s hugely popular photo, in cooperation with Halsman, of a skull formed by the artful positioning of seven naked women.
It all makes sense when we consider Dali’s very definition of his artistic technique: “Color photography, hand-painted.”
(Halsman photos and other images used under Fair Use journalistic provisions)