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30.1.04

Brassaï

Brassaï, Paris de nuitAs far as I'm concerned, you can never look at too many pictures of Paris. So I've been looking up some resources on the Hungarian photographer Brassaï, inspired by an old article I read (Brassaï plein cadre, May 26, 2000, in Le Point) on the big exhibition (Brassaï) at the Centre Pompidou back in 2000. Gyula Halász took his pseudonym from Brassó, the village in Hungary where he was born (this town is now in Romania). He arrived in Paris in 1925, which he immediately recognized as his adopted home (his tomb is in the Montparnasse Cemetery). He came to France as a journalist but thought that he might make a better income if he became a photographer, so he learned how to use a camera. As recounted in the article, it was the Parisian night that first captivated him (see image at right):

"Night suggests, but it does not show. It frees the forces in us that, during the day, are subdued by reason." He loved the faces that tell a story, the little jobs that speak of the town's real nature, the places of pleasure, the reverberations, and their spots of light. Let's go! On his back, twenty-four unexposed plates (the maximum he could carry) and his camera (rather unwieldy, like those of the time [see the self-portrait Brassaï, Boulevard Saint-Jacques, 1932]). The stroll begins.

In 1932, his first book appeared: Paris by Night, sixty-two images with a preface by Paul Morand. A triumph at the bookstores. This poetry without sentimentality, this intoxicating seizure of contrasts, this shimmer of lines, yes, Paris recognized itself in his work, and his friend Henry Miller gave him the title of "the eye of Paris." André Breton wanted to bring him into his surrealist group, but he always resisted, suspecting Breton to be a tyrant and accepting only the presitigious collaboration on the Minotaure review, where his spread showed magnificent nudes [see these two examples]. "They thought of my photos as surrealist because they revealed a ghostly Paris, unreal, drowned in night and fog. But the surrealism of my images was nothing but reality rendered fantastic by dreaming. I sought only to express reality, because nothing is more surreal."
There are lots of images of Brassaï's photographs to see online, including the Brassaï pages from Masters of Photography; Brassaï and Night Photographs from Boston University; Brassaï: The Soul of Paris (2001) at the Hayward Gallery in London; Brassaï: Das Auge von Paris from the Kunstmuseum in Wolfsburg; and, with no images, an interesting article about Brassaï's reading of Proust (Brassaï, lecteur de Proust, by Jean-Pierre Montier).

What the Eye of Paris recorded is not only the beautiful and serene (for example, The Viaduc d'Auteuil at Night, 1932; and Matisse Sketching, 1939) but scenes from the underworld of 1930s Paris: prostitutes (Chez 'Suzy', 1932; Prostitute at Corner of Rue de la Reynie and Rue Quincampoix, 1933), old frauds (Bijou, 1932), drug users (Opium Den, 1931), the homeless (Clochard Looking for Food, 1932), homosexuals (Lesbian Couple at Le Monocle, 1932), or street thugs (Toughs in Big Albert's Gang, 1931-32). Think of Brassaï's photographs as the visual counterpart to a book like Henry Miller's Tropic of Cancer.