" There are many photographs which are full of life but
which are confusing and difficult to remember.
It is the force of an image which matters."
Brassai (1899 - 1984) was born Gyula Halasz in Transylvania, Rumania to a Hungarian father and an Armenian mother.
He trained as an artist in Budapest and Berlin, dabbling in drawing, painting and writing. In World War II, Brassai fought against France and the Allies. Afterwards, in the chaos of the post war world's revolutions and redrawing of borders, he joined a number of other Hungarian writers and artists in Germany. He worked as a journalist and studied drawing and painting.
He arrived in Paris in 1924 and belongs to first wave of Hungarian emigrants that went over to Western Europe and America in search of wider personal horizons more than escaping from political or economical difficulties. Once in Paris, Brassai found his natural atmosphere surrounded by writers, artists and journalists in coffee houses.
He scrambled for work as a journalist, disdaining photography as "something aside from true art". But he finally picked up his camera and produced his epochal first book "Paris by Night" , which transformed the Hungarian artist into a world-renowned photographer.
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Although he had a rocky financial beginning, he was fortunate - he was in the right place in the right moment. The place was Paris and the time was 1930s. During this decade, Paris was the artistic centre of Europe. He was taking pictures to accompany his articles for Hungarian newspaper. He had high artistic expectations wishing to fulfil through his photographs - reveal something of Paris' culture and mysterious qualities, its atmosphere, texture and form, represent an original and significant contribution to the art of the thirties, as well as to the history of photography.
"Chance is always there. We all use it. The difference is a poor photographer meets chance one out of a hundred times and a good photographer meets chance all the time. " - Brassai
In 1932 Brassai discovered the graffiti on the walls of Paris, and he covered this subject for many years to come. His appeal has its origin in the complexity of mixing the documentary role of his journalistic job and the emanating new forms of art. Through his contribution to the surrealist magazine Minotaur during the thirties, he became acquainted with many writers, poets and artists of surrealism. The avant-garde at this time, under the name of surrealism, had a fixation for "changer la vie". The surrealist artists were in search of ways to express their inner lives, the subconscious and dreams. The definite goal was to create liberation from the reality. He began work for Harper's Bazaar in 1937, and he supplied that magazine with many photographic essays famous literary personalities and artists.
A master of light, shadow and atmosphere, Brassai often chose to focus on the set pieces of the City of light, creating memorable and lyrical images of its monuments, bridges and boulevards. Dubbed "the eyes of Paris" by his friend author Henry Miller, the photographer portrayed his subject - writers, artists, society swells, night workers, street toughs and prostitutes - in their own light without pity or disapproval.
Whether photographing an elegant masked ball or urbane soiree for Harper's Bazaar or documenting the demimonde and the raucous, risque nightlife of the Parisian working classes for his own publications, he maintained a vision that was unblinking in its acceptance of how life was lived.
He studied technique, and used an eccentric collection of plate cameras, even after the 35mm Leica became the chosen camera of photographers with similar interests. Brassai's first camera was Voigtlander Bergheil and later a Rolleiflex.
The explanation for his technical choice came from his intention of presenting static, motionless pictures. We find this not only in his early pictures but also in his later work. He didn't care about taking endless shots of the same scene, 35mm style, feeling that if he limited himself to two or three exposures, his picture would seem less accidental and more his.
"I like living beings; I like life, but I like to capture it in such a way that the photo does not move. I don't really like the snapshot, the Leica with its 39 views, all of which distract attention." - Brassai
He posed his cafe pictures, having his subject wait while an assistant set up a reflecting screen and then held the flash powder that explode into the light that produced softer edges than flashbulbs and earned him the nickname "The Terrorist" from Picasso.
He made reality into a stage set, then waited and waited until his subject's attention wandered back to their cafe concerns, their nightlife personas. The powder erupted, the shutter of his Voigtlander camera clicked. In other words, he waited till the people stopped posing for the camera and resumed posing for the world. He took no interest in photographing the secret souls of his subjects; he found their true life in public poses.
His main works took place at a time when photography was still not a massive use of communication media: the inter wars period. This was a moment of cultural, social and economical transition in Europe. Whatever the general stream was, Brassai seems to have omitted these social and political changes.
The things Brassai saw were the things he recorded. He had the rare gift of normal vision, the ability to see things for what they are. The fact is that Brassai's life work is just part of reality of his time, his specific pictures either of human beings or landscapes are the ones he saw.
In 1962, after the death of Carmel Snow, the publisher of Harper's Bazaar, Brassai gave up photography altogether. From then on, he kept busy making new prints of his photographs and new additions of his early books.
Until his death 1984, the artist sought to chronicle the place and age in which he lived, probing it "with eyes and hands", seizing on a variety of things and making them unforgettable.
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Brassai Books and Posters
Brassai always insisted that none of his photographs was posed…
By Marja Warehime, excerpt from Brassai: Images of Culture and the Surrealist Observer
Brassai always insisted that none of his photographs was posed, and there is no reason to believe that he behaved differently with the toughs in the rue de Lappe then he did with Lawrence Durrell. No doubt he attempted to put his subjects at ease, to get them to ignore the camera. He probably made an effort not to pay too much attention to them, appearing distracted by the music, conversation, or dancing while he remained watchful, waiting for some revealing expression or gesture, some particular configuration of events.
Certainly this method required both considerable time and patience, but Brassai maintained that he went to great lengths to win his subjects’ confidence. Whenever possible he arranged to be introduced into a particular milieu by someone who was already accepted (the photographer’s equivalent of the anthropologist’s “local informant”), then tried to establish himself as a regular before revealing that he was a photographer. It is clear from his introduction to The Secret Paris that he sometimes succeeded in developing a rapport with his potential subjects and in having them suggest that he take their pictures; in other cases he admits that he paid them, some of them gang leaders and pimps, in order to gain their cooperation.
Brassai seems to have worked in a very coherent way. He took shots to establish the background, including group shots that give the viewer some sense of proportion and a way to related individuals to the larger social context…
On some occasions Brassai would set up his camera in a cafe, a bistro, a brothel, or a bar and work throughout the evening. Several series of photographs are clearly discernible in The Secret Paris, even though they are distributed among different chapters. A case in point is the section entitled “Bals-Musette.” We recognize the subjects of these photographs as we leaf through the The Secret Paris; they are habitues of a local cafe, then they reappear, sometimes with new partners, as lovers, or among couples dancing. Most of the photographs from “Bals-Musette” were taken in two different night spots on the rue de Lappe, probably on successive evenings. The first photograph of the section shows a group of patrons clustered in front of a bistro. The equivalent of a cinematic plan d’ensemble, this photograph introduces the locale and some of the faces that will appear on other photographs in the same section. The next two photographs provide a glimpse of the interiors of two bistros, although only one is from the rue de Lappe; the other functions generically as a typical interior shot. Later photographs show people from the initial shot mingling with other customers, now at the bar, or at a table, now in the foreground, now in the background. The last two photographs in this section were taken in Montmartre and theoretically do not belong to the same series, although there are no visual features that set them apart from the others. These shots, like the others, create the same effect of a continual shifting of emphasis as now one, now another character takes center stage, alternating between supporting and starring roles. The three prostitutes in these last photographs are actually two women: the prostitute we see playing billiards in the first photograph simply changed “costume,” putting a dark V-neck sweater over her plaid blouse to pose at the bar for a second “take.”
As these series indicate, Brassai seems to have worked in a very coherent way. He took shots to establish the background, including group shots that give the viewer some sense of proportion and a way to related individuals to the larger social context, as well as shots focusing on one or two of the “players” in the scene. If there is something of reportage to this approach, the resulting effect differs considerably from a series on cesspool cleaners (which also figures in The Secret Paris) taken a year earlier in 1931, before Brassai’s experience with Korda. For whatever or combination of reasons, in the interval that separated Brassai’s earlier series from his more complex later work in 1932 and 1933, he developed a heightened sense of the possibilities for dramatic interaction between the principals of his photographs. Significantly, it is Brassai’s increasing mastery of his medium and his growing sensitivity to its potential for providing a heightened or dramatic sense of reality (its configuration of the real as image) that links his work to the Surrealists.
Continue Reading Here:
Brassai: Images of Culture and the Surrealist Observer (Modernist Studies)
Louisiana State University Press, June 1998
ASX ARTIST CHANNEL: BRASSAI
(All rights reserved. Text @ Marja Warehime, Images @ The Estate of Brassai)
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