In the early 1950s, Latvian-born Jewish photographer Philippe Halsman devised an unusual method for encouraging his subjects to reveal their personalities: he asked them to jump, and pressed the shutter while they were mid-air.
He photographed hundreds of actors, artists and politicians in this way, including Salvador Dalí, Marilyn Monroe, Richard Nixon and Aldous Huxley. “Everybody hides behind a mask,” Halsman said. “In a jump, the subject… cannot simultaneously control his expressions, his facial and his limb muscles. The mask falls. The real self becomes visible.”
In The Jump Artist, debut novelist Austin Ratner imagines what might have lain behind Halsman’s own mask, taking as a starting point the extraordinary events of the photographer’s youth, when he was twice falsely convicted for patricide in the Austrian Alps.
Sigmund Freud was called to testify at the second trial and declared that he saw no psychological motive for murder. Despite this, the antisemitism then prevalent in the Tyrol, together with Halsman’s prickly behaviour in court, ensured that he was found guilty and sentenced to four years imprisonment.
Intellectuals such as Thomas Mann and Albert Einstein campaigned for Halsman’s release and, in 1930, after two years in prison, the 24-year-old Latvian received a pardon from the President of Austria, on condition that he leave the country and never return.
The Jump Artist streamlines the complicated double-trial process, moving straight from Halsman witnessing his father’s death to his second trial. Ratner emphasises the theatricality of the courtroom, portraying the fate of the young, Jewish, metropolitan Halsman in the hands of an antisemitic, mountain-dwelling jury.
Ratner has evidently researched his facts but his focus is on Halsman’s mental world, and the courtroom proceedings are interspersed with the increasing disorder of Halsman’s thoughts as he struggles with grief at his father’s death as well as his unjust imprisonment.
By the time he is released, Halsman is teetering on the edge of sanity. The rest of the novel explores how his experiences in the Tyrol continue to affect him during his move to France, his reincarnation as a famous photographer and, as war threatens, his escape to America.
The trial is fascinating in its reflection of broader concerns of 1920s Europe: psychoanalysis, Jewish distrust of gentiles, the antisemitism rife in parts of Austria and exacerbated by the press.
In The Jump Artist, these currents and counter-currents are subordinate to Halsman’s psyche. This can be frustrating, since Halsman, or at least Ratner’s fictionalised version of him, is never quite as interesting as the events.
Less historical novel than an exploration of how an individual might process trauma, the book is nevertheless an intriguing account of a little-known chapter in Austrian history, as well as a generous-spirited portrait of a leading 20th-century photographer.
Hannah Rosefield is a freelance writer and researcher