“He (Brassaï ) is very much a child of Paris, and in some ways the city’s most faithful biographer.”
- Lawrence Durrell
It is almost impossible to think about Paris by night without bringing to mind a Brassaï image - their heavy and mysterious atmosphere recall the cabarets of Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec’s fin-de-siècle paintings or the “Années Folles” (the crazy years). It was an era when the feeling of liberty could be seen all over Paris: Dance halls were full of people dancing Charleston, women wearing fluid dresses with their hair in a bob, often seen with a cigarette holder and dancing to the rhythm of Jazz. During those times, around 1924, Brassaï arrived in Paris. He was a young man who dreamt of becoming a painter. But once he arrived in Paris, he gave up his brushes. The truth is that he was so attracted to Parisian life that eventually he had no interest in restricting himself "to the four walls of an atelier all alone.”
Brassaï (1949). Gala Soirée at Maxim’s
Brassaï, whose original name was Gyula Halasz, was born in 1899 in the Transylvanian city of Brasso. He studied painting and sculpture; initially he had little interest in photography. He worked as a journalist in Paris and learned the mechanics of the camera and the basic direction of photography from André Kertész. He was a fellow Hungarian and friend who had moved to Paris a while before him. However, Brassaï's true passion was to capture the glamourous world that was unfolding in the Parisian cafes after night. That was when he decided to adopt the pseudonym Brassaï - to protect himself and his reputation - and take action, capturing the hidden underbelly of the Parisian nightlife. During his night explorations in Paris, Brassaï formed friendships with artists and writers such as Pablo Picasso, Joan Miró, Salvador Dalí, Jacques Prévert, Henri Michaux, and Henry Miller, most of whom he later photographed. Most of the portraits taken by Brassaï were of well-known people, giving him social prestige.
In 1933, Brassaï published around 60 photographs in his photobook Paris de Nuit (Paris by Night), with accompanying text by French writer Paul Morand. It did not take a lot for the book to become a hit. Thus, Brassaï received new proposals for publications that ranged from the erotic magazine Scandale to the well-known fashion magazine Harper’s Bazaar and the luxury art magazine Minotaure. In 1935, he published his second book, Voluptés de Paris (Pleasures of Paris). Later in his life, he published other significant photobooks, such as: Henry Miller: The Paris Years (1975) and the Artists of My Life (1982).
Brassai was the first great chronicler of the urban underbelly. The seminal stateside exhibition (back in 2018), organized by Fundación MAPFRE and former MoMA curator Peter Galassi, tells the larger story of both the man and his work. The exhibition followed all of the artistic facets of the photographer, including pictures of street graffiti, female nudes, and portraits of his famous friends such as Pablo Picasso and Salvador Dali as well as self-portraits capturing Brassaï in action. One of the most distinguished self-portraits is the "On the boulevard Saint-Jacques" (1930–32) that captures Brassaï standing on a snowy Parisian street in a heavy coat and a brimmed hat, cigarette propped between his lips, peering into a tripod-mounted camera.
Brassaï (1932). Amoureux dans un Petit Cafe, Quartier Italie
It is not hard to imagine the technical difficulties that Brassaï had to face when photographing in the nighttime of Parisian cabarets and boardwalks. He took his pictures with a small plate camera mounted on a tripod and fired a magnesium flash to light his scenes. Brassaï’s photographs are the results of many brilliant techniques, one of which is called the set-up. Brassaï basically decided the photograph in advance, then carefully, he prepared the location and set up his equipment before guiding his subjects to take poses that would look natural in the final image. This hidden trick gave us brilliant images, like the "Amoureux dans un petit café, quartier Italie" (A loving couple in a small cafe in, Italian district). It is one of the most famous Brassaï’s photographs - a couple canoodling in the corner of a Parisian coffee house in the early 1930s, smoke curling from a lit cigarette between the woman’s fingers. The aesthetic touch that "lifts" the image is the mirrors on either side of the couple's heads, reflecting their loving looks. His jacket and her thick sweater suggest that it was winter during the shoot and the Parisian coffee house was a cozy shelter for the couple. The photograph remains today, the epitome of lust and old-world glamour, remaining as suggestive and seductive as ever.
Brassaï on the Boulevard Saint Jacques (1930-32)
On 12 June 1940, two days before the German army marched into Paris, Brassaï left the city, but he returned in October and stayed there throughout the rest of the occupation. His refusal to collaborate with the Germans stopped him from taking photographs openly. Apparently, his only source of income that period came from photographing Picasso's sculptures. After a twenty year gap, Brassaï went back to drawing and sculpting, while he also began to explore his significant talent for writing. From 1945 onwards, thanks to the numerous commissions from the North American magazine Harper’s Bazaar, he returned to photography and began to travel regularly all around the world.
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Welsh, Mischa. (2020). Les Années Folles Josephine Baker and the ‘Roaring Twenties. Found MAgazine. https://issuu.com/found2020/docs/found2020_spreads/s/11745626
Silverman, Rena. (2018, April 11). Brassai: The ‘Eye of Paris. The New York Times. https://www.nytimes.com/2018/04/11/lens/brassai-the-eye-of-paris.html
Woodward, Richard. (2018, May 3). Brassaï, ed. Peter Galassi. Collector Daily. https://collectordaily.com/brassai-ed-peter-galassi/
SEIN. (2019, October 23). Brassaï and his night scenes of Paris. https://www.sigma-sein.com/en/curator/Brassai/
Stuart Alexander, Antonio Muñoz Molina. Brassai. Artbook. https://www.artbook.com/9788498446449.html
Fundación MAPFRE. (2021). Fundación MAPFRE presents in Barcelona the most comprehensive exhibition of the work of the photographer Brassaï. https://noticias.fundacionmapfre.org/en/exhibition-brassai-barcelona/
Brassaï. (1932).Amoureux dans un Petit Cafe, Quartier Italie. [Photograph]. The Guardian. https://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/gallery/2019/oct/08/city-of-light-brassai-paris-in-pictures-photography#img-1
Brassaï. (1949). Gala Soirée at Maxim’s. [Photograph]. The Guardian. https://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/gallery/2019/oct/08/city-of-light-brassai-paris-in-pictures-photography#img-7
Brassaï. (1930-32). On the Boulevard Saint Jacques. [Photograph]. The Guardian. https://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/gallery/2019/oct/08/city-of-light-brassai-paris-in-pictures-photography#img-12