Written By: Tara Johnson
Philippe Halsman, the prolific 20th-century portrait photographer, was assigned by LIFE Magazine to photograph Elizabeth Taylor for a profile story. Halsman had previously captured figures such as Marilyn Monroe, Alfred Hitchcock and Winston Churchill.
In October 1948, Taylor, who was only 16, arrived in a low-cut dress at Halsman’s New York City portrait studio, which still exists and is home to the Halsman Archive. “In my studio Elizabeth was quiet and shy. She struck me as an average teen-ager, except that she was incredibly beautiful,” Halsman reflected in his book Halsman: Sight and Insight.
Halsman had his one-of-a-kind hand-built 4×5 view camera ready to go with both black-and-white and color film.
“On a purely technical level, he pointed out that two sides of my face photographed differently,” Taylor would later recall. “One side looked younger; the other more mature. In posing for Halsman, I became instantly aware of my body.”
Taylor had worn her own dazzling earrings, but she didn’t wear a necklace. During the sitting, Halsman borrowed his wife Yvonne Halsman’s blue triangle pendant necklace and placed it around Elizabeth’s neck. This subtle decision added a level of impact to the portrait. The necklace was later passed down to Halsman’s daughter Irene.
In Taylor’s 1988 autobiography, Elizabeth Takes Off: On Weight Gain, Weight Loss, Self-Image, and Self-Esteem, she described the effect the portrait session had on her self-image: “[Halsman] was the first person to make me look at myself as a woman… After my session with Halsman, I was much more determined to control my screen image. I wanted to look older so I insisted on cutting my hair. In 1949 I went from portraying Amy in Little Women, another child-woman to playing a full-fledged romantic lead in The Conspirator. At barely seventeen, I grew up for all America to see.“
Halsman ran into Taylor a few weeks later in Hollywood and when approached by him, she couldn’t remember where they had met.
“She could have not hurt me more,” he would later reflect. “Her words showed again how important a photograph can be and how unimportant the photographer who made it.”