Austin Rat­ners first book, The Jump Artist, is the win­ner of the 2011 Sami Rohr Prize for Jew­ish Lit­er­a­ture. He will be blog­ging all week for the Jew­ish Book Coun­cil and MyJew­ish­Learn­ings Vis­it­ing Scribe.

When I learned about Philippe Hals­mans life-sto­ry and deter­mined I would write a nov­el about him (The Jump Artist, 2011 win­ner of the Rohr Prize for Jew­ish Lit­er­a­ture), I was struck by the con­tra­dic­tions he embod­ied. Here was a man whom his­to­ry had ensnared in a fright­ful way — at the age of 22, he was false­ly accused of mur­der­ing his father in anti-Semit­ic west­ern Aus­tria, and he served two years in prison, where he attempt­ed sui­cide and almost died of tuber­cu­lo­sis. At the same time, here was a man who re-emerged in New York in the 1940s as a pho­tog­ra­ph­er — one whose work expressed the play­ful­ness and opti­mism of post-war life in Amer­i­ca on the cov­ers of Life mag­a­zine. Hals­man him­self was by all accounts a sec­u­lar Jew, but his sto­ry and his work are as Jew­ish as a Hil­lel sand­wich, and rep­re­sent almost as neat­ly the oppo­site poles of pain and joy that define the Jew­ish his­tor­i­cal experience.

It’s clear that the events of Halsman’s twen­ties shaped and scarred him, and in a per­ma­nent way. In a 1995 inter­view with Ein­stein biog­ra­ph­er Denis Bri­an, Philippe’s wife Yvonne Hals­man said of the Aus­tri­an Drey­fus Affair” of 1928, It was a suf­fer­ing for him for the rest of his life. And for his moth­er and sis­ter and for all of us.” But it’s also clear that he became an astute observ­er of peo­ple, their psy­ches, and their tor­ment, and turned pain into art, some­times with a Kafkaesque sense of humor. He col­lab­o­rat­ed often with Sal­vador Dali.

Call­ing him­self the dis­cov­er­er of Jumpol­o­gy,” he also com­pelled hun­dreds of sub­jects to jump in the air for his cam­era — every­one from Brigitte Bar­dot and Mar­i­lyn Mon­roe to Robert Oppen­heimer and Richard Nixon. He wrote in his 1959 Jump Book, The roots of my dis­cov­ery reach into my ear­ly child­hood. I was born with an intense inter­est in jump­ing…. I could run, jump and turn over in the air.” He delight­ed in jump­ing through­out his life and in pho­tograph­in­gothers in the act of jump­ing. Every­body hides behind a mask,” Hals­man writes. In a jump the sub­ject, in a sud­den burst of ener­gy, over­comes grav­i­ty. He can­not simul­ta­ne­ous­ly con­trol his expres­sions, his facial and his limb mus­cles. The mask falls. The real self becomes vis­i­ble. One has only to snap it with the camera.”

Upon pho­tograph­ing the great jurist Learned Hand, then aged 87, jump­ing off the ground, Hals­man con­clud­ed that jump­ing was, among oth­er things, a revolt against death and despair. Hals­man, like the Jew­ish peo­ple at dif­fer­ent points in their his­to­ry, found a way to rise above his hard­ships, as if by an act of mag­ic lev­i­ta­tion. As a writer and as a Jew, I found his sto­ry irresistible.

Austin Rat­ners first book, The Jump Artist, is now avail­able. Come back all week to read his posts.

Austin Rat­ner is author of the nov­els In the Land of the Liv­ing and The Jump Artist, win­ner of the Sami Rohr Prize for Jew­ish Lit­er­a­ture, and the non-fic­tion book The Psychoanalyst’s Aver­sion to Proof. He is an M.D., stud­ied at the Iowa Writ­ers’ Work­shop, and he teach­es cre­ative writ­ing at the Sack­ett Street Writ­ers’ Work­shop in New York.