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11.9.04

The Man of Mirrors

Available from Amazon:
Jean-Claude Gautrand, Brassaï universel (Taschen, 2004)
Jean-Claude Gautrand, Brassaï universel (Taschen, 2004)
In an article (Brassaï tout cru, August 27) for Libération, Brigitte Ollier has reviewed a new book on the Hungarian photographer: Jean-Claude Gautrand, Brassaï universel (Taschen, 2004). As you may know, Brassaï is an Ionarts fave, if I may borrow a Tyler Green-ism (see my post, Brassaï, from January 30, 2004). She describes the book as being au format cahier d'écolier (school notebook size), what we would call a coffeetable book, "well printed and beautifully commented by photographer and historian Jean-Claude Gautrand, one of the pioneers of Arles." By that she means the Rencontres Internationales de la Photographie, an annual photography festival in the southern French town of Arles, that I still haven't gotten around to blogging about and which ends this year on September 19. (Arles was the site of a major archeological find last year, the foundation of the Early Christian basilica, one of the oldest Christian cathedrals in Europe: see my posts on November 17 and November 20, 2003, as well as my report on the terrible floods that occurred there last December. For lots more information on the history of Arles and its patrimony, see the excellent new Web site Patrimoine de la ville d'Arles.)
On the cover, two ecstatic lovers in the booth of a small Parisian cafe: him, hair slicked back; her, made up to excess, with thin eyebrows and a vamp's mouth. [...] As with all his photographs, it possesses an individual aura, a magic found in the couple's unrestrained embrace, in this profound black and white that is the stylish signature of prewar France, and in the play of reflecting mirrors that Brassaï so loved.

Because Brassaï is first and foremost the man of mirrors, without us knowing if he is in front or behind them, so acute is his visual instinct of self-placement. He is comfortable in all situations; he belongs to that generation of observers of the human race who are not ashamed to photograph with equal tenderness both laborers at work and the homeless under bridges. He was curious by profession: everything interested him, Sunday painters as well as tough guys in Les Halles, hookers as well as bad boys, even when he had his photographic plates stolen on the Rue de Lappe at the Bal des Quatre-Saisons. He himself was rather nice, with a dandy's elegance [see this Self-Portrait in an Opium Den, c. 1931]. Such as when he posed for Michèle Bellot in his studio with his handknit sweater, fixing the lens with his incredible, large eyes which stared at Picasso, Henry Miller, [Henri Matisse,] and Henri Michaux.
His eyes were still pretty captivating in this portrait from 1974. The book has a broad selection of photographs: "Left Bank, Right Bank, in the cafes with the belote players or la Môme Bijou, in the whorehouses, these 'houses of illusions' that were flourishing then in Paris (800 of them in the 1930s), with portraits of the girls not in action, but just after or just before, in all delicacy, even at the Bal de la montagne Sainte-Geneviève, among the homos, with no caricature, even in the fear of the impending arrival of the moral brigade." (Google Images will give you a nice selection of his photographs.) The reviewer also notes similar works from the same publisher on Karl Blossfeldt, Edward S. Curtis, Man Ray, and Edward Weston. Excuse me while I update my Amazon wish list.

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