In the days before Photoshop, putting together a cool photo required invisible wires, a few assistants, and three cats willing to be thrown a couple dozen times. At least that’s how surrealist painter Salvador Dalí and famed portrait photographer Philippe Halsman put together their iconic 1948 photograph, “Dalí Atomicus.” And Time details the exhaustive process that brought the whimsical photo to life as part of its “Behind The Photos” series.
Narrated by Halsman’s daughter Irene—whose job it was to wrangle the three cats used in the photo—the video details both the longtime partnership between Dalí and Halsman, as well as the specific effort that went into creating “Dalí Atomicus.” Halsman would count to four before snapping each shot; the cats and water were thrown on “three” while Dalí jumped on “four.” And in an era before digital cameras, Halsman had to head to his dark room after each attempt in order to develop the photo and see what adjustments needed to be made. That break also gave the assistants time to calm the cats and mop up the water before they tried the whole thing again.
In the end it took 26 tries (28 by Halsman’s count) to get the composition right. And Dalí completed the image by painting directly onto the print. For their trouble, Dalí and Halsman wound up with a famed photo that would go on to grace the pages of Life magazine. Those cats, meanwhile, were presumably left with a healthy dose of PTSD.