The Jump Artist

The Jump Artist

by Austin Ratner

Gail Reid (05/16/12): Although Philippe Halsman is not a household name, he was quite well known as a post-war celebrity photographer in New York. He was said to be very talented and captured the spirit of his subjects in photographs by making them jump. It is hard to believe that his background is a horrific story, replete with rampant anit-Semitism and false imprisonment. While hiking in the Alps with his father Max, the elder has either fallen or been killed and the young Philippe is accused. He goes to prison but ultimately is released and makes his way to Paris where he studies photography.

This book was the recipient of an important Jewish fiction prize in 2010 and Amazon reader reviews are stellar. What am I missing? I thought it dragged along and skipped around, confusing me in many places. The writing was peppered with many unfamiliar German phrases and dialog which instead of contributing to authenticity served no purpose other than an annoying artifice. That said, the story is still an interesting one; and when Halsman is referred to as "the Austrian Dreyfus", you will certainly understand why.
Rating: ***

Debbie Weiss (04/13/12): The Jump Artist is a book of historical fiction about the photographer Philippe Halsman. Philippe lived in Latvia as a child, but when he was a young adult, he went hiking with his father in the Tyrolean Alps. While Philippe walked ahead on the trail, his father was attacked and murdered. Naziism was on the rise in Austria at the time and Phillipe was brought to trial for the killing of his father. It was a very high profile trial that became known as ‘The Austrian Dreyfus Affair.’ Many intellectuals, including Albert Einstein, came to Halsman's aid. Found guilty, Phillip spent time in prison. He was suicidal and quite devestated over the loss of his father as well as his own imprisonment.

Upon his release, he fled to Paris where he eventually took up photography. He became well known and successful, taking photos mostly of beautiful women. He married and moved to New York when antisemitism in France began to flourish.

While very successful in his profession, photographing such celebrities as Dean Martin, Jerry Lewis, Marilyn Monroe and Richard Nixon, Philippe Halsman never escaped his haunted past. He never really seemed happy even though his photos were said to display the outlook of postwar America — happy, funny, and sexy. He was famous for taking photos of people jumping up into the air.

The author of the book, Austin Ratner, has a medical degree and the book has won many prizes, including the 2011 Sami Rorh Prize for Jewish Literature and it was featured in Publishers Weekly as one of 10 promising debuts of 2009. With this being said, I found it a dry read and I wasn't particularly excited about it. While learning about Philippe Halsman's life was interesting in its historical perspective, as a novel I thought it was definitely lacking.
Rating: ***

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