Brassai: Paris Nocturne — Book Review by Ron Steinman

Brassai

Paris Nocturne

By Sylvie Aubenas and Quentin Bajac

Thames and Hudson, Inc

308 pages

Brassai was not his real name. Born in Brasso, Hungry in 1899 as Gyula Halasz into a middle class intellectual family, he took the name Brassai as a tribute to the town where he grew up. He arrived in Paris in 1924 after studying sculpture and painting and working in Berlin as a journalist. He lived in the artist’s quarter of Montparnasse and wandered the streets after dark, often alone. In Paris, he wrote and he drew, until, in 1929, he picked up a camera and started taking photos. His fascination with documenting the underside of Paris at night became his passion. So began what would constitute his most important work and his most creative period.

The finely reproduced black and white pictures in this large format book take us through that important period as an artist when he photographed prostitutes, pimps, brothels, opium dens, drugs, homosexuality, gangsters, transvestites, lesbians, lovers, tradesmen, gypsies, chorus girls, and poverty. Henry Miller and Pablo Picasso were his friends. Miller called him “the eye of Paris,” at least for what he photographed. He was also close to the writers Jacques Prevert and Raymond Queneau. His work reflects his sometime dark vision especially when he focused his lens on a face, people in action, a street lamp, and wet cobblestones.

His middle class background tells us nothing of why or how he became a great photographer with more iconic and oft imitated images to his credit in a the short span of four years than most have in a lifetime. In looking at an artist’s life, we often wonder about the impetus of his or her creativity. Brassai said he was seeking, “The very essence of Paris.” His uncomplicated antecedents seem to be all we know about his apparently normal early life. We will never know what attracted Brassai to the nighttime world of Paris in the 1920s and 1930s. We will never know what drew him to the dark streets and the private rooms and public spaces where people congregated, ate, drank, and spent their lives in the pursuit of pleasure. There is nothing in his background on why Paris after dark became his outlet for creative expression. He did say, though, “I lived at night, going to bed at sunrise, getting up at sunset, wandering about the city from Montparnasse to Montmartre.” He said “ Taking pictures was nothing other than a pleasure for me.” Perhaps this is all we have to know.

The book chronicles the most fruitful period of Brassies’ creativity. All 296 illustrations in the book, including 214 in duotone, come from 1929-1934. The book by Sylvie Aubenas and Quentine Bajac, with a brief introduction and three clear, incisive essays brings together some of the best known images from Brassai’s books, “Paris After Dark” and “Secret Paris.”

By the time Brassai was at work full time on his photos, other photographers such as Germaine Krull and André Keitesg were doing similar work in magazines such as “Voila” and “Vu.” Many photographers in the Paris of the 1920s and 1930s worked on commission and placed their work in hard-edged police procedurals such as “Detective.” No doubt, these photographers fed off each other in ways they never suspected. What Brassai did was not new, but his approach, his soul, and endless understanding of the Paris nightlife set him apart from his contemporaries. He had an understanding how people acted inside the frame of the camera, an important often-subtle distinction from other photographers at that time.

He used a large Voigtlander Bergheil folding plate, drop bed camera, usually with a tripod. That allowed him to take only four or five pictures a night. Using that camera gave him the chance for long exposures. He had great skill and patience working with artificial light. He had an innate, self-taught understanding of the amount of time it took to get his shot and how deep its focus would be with the resultant odd angles found in many of his street photos. Brassai insisted that he was not a slave to technique. The technique he used came naturally to him and it was not until later in his life that he explored its meaning. But his creativity did not stop when he captured the image he wanted. Because his photos often told the story of decadence better than reams of written words, Brassai spent the time he needed to develop his own prints. Thus, he controlled the photo from its conception to its birth.

On occasion, as was typical of the period, he staged people and scenes, especially couples, paying modest fees for their work and their permission to shoot. He often changed his approach as the night progressed until he got the images he wanted. If he could help it, he left nothing to chance, especially when he had a commission from a magazine. But he did not stage everything. He still roamed the underside of Paris, when required being discreet as possible looking for those images that set his work apart. He called what he did a “ voyage to the end of the night.” However, his wanderings were never without problems. Thugs would steal and wreck his equipment. Pimps would threaten his life. No matter, he continued his trek undaunted.

Look carefully at Brassai’s photos generously arrayed before us in this new book. Appreciate his instinct as created various moods through light and shapes and angles. See how he understands depth and contrast, and how his perspective makes some of his streetscapes appear to be three-dimensional. Feel what he felt when he took the pictures. Welcome what your eye sees. In thinking about Brassi, it should only matter how the photo affects your emotions and the story it tells.

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Filed under Journalism, Photography

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