In 1949, LIFE commissioned photographer Philippe Halsman to produce a photo essay on Cocteau, in order to try and illustrate what happens “inside a poet’s mind.” The results were delightful.
...the poet hovers above a chair, as if weightless; ...
While Cocteau had, by 1949, proven himself a multifaceted poet, filmmaker, painter and even ballet director, Halsman was famous for his masterful command of one trade: producing striking images that were compositionally simple, but stylistically experimental. Halsman, too, was an early embracer of surrealist tenets, and as a close friend of Salvador Dali could not have been a more a perfect fit for the assignment.
Indeed, to photograph a quirky subject like Cocteau in a pretty straightforward studio setting was in keeping with two of Halsman’s rules of photography ― rules he later outlined in his 1961 book, Halsman on the Creation of Photographic Ideas: keep it simple, but make it special.
And special his Cocteau shoot emphatically was. Dramatic and inventive, Halsman’s pictures not only capture the levity, the playfulness, of surrealism as a movement. In an elemental way, they also celebrate the spirit of two men who were unafraid to push boundaries ― to go that little bit further.