The story behind the surreal photograph of Salvador Dalí and three flying cats


Before photographer Philippe Halsman and Surrealist Salvador Dalí settled on the idea of tossing three cats into the air for the photograph Dalí Atomicus (1948), the Spanish artist suggested they blow up a duck using dynamite. Considering it took 26 attempts to pull off the picture of a levitating Dalí in a chaotic airborne scene, Halsman’s insistence against the first idea was decidedly the best course of action.

Halsman, a mid-century portrait photographer, sought to lift the veil on his subjects, however briefly, to reveal their innermost being. “A true photographer wants to try to capture the real essence of a human being,” he once famously said. But capturing the essence of Dalí was a complex task. Over nearly four decades, Halsman photographed the artist on many occasions, spurring the most iconic black-and-white portraits of the Surrealist.

I still remember the first time I ever saw this image as a kid and thinking, “This is stupid.” It took me many years and a level of maturity before I began to understand both the art of Dali and the photographic achievements of Halsman.