Brassai Essay


" 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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Further Resources

Brassai Books and Posters

BRASSAI took his name from the town of his birth, Brasso, in Transylvania, then part of Hungary, later of Roumania, and famous as the home of Court Dracula. He studied art at the academies of Budapest and Berlin before coming to Paris in the mid-twenties. He was completely disinterested in photography, if not scornful of it, until he saw the work being done by his acquaintance Andre Kertesz, which inspired him to take up the medium himself.

In the early thirties he set about photographing the night of Paris, especially at its more colorful and more disreputable levels. The results this project --- a fascinatingly tawdry collection of prostitutes, pimps, madams, transvestites, apaches, and assorted cold-eyed pleasure-seekers --- was published in 1933 as Paris de Nuit, one of the most remarkable of all photographic books.

Making photographs in the dark bistros and darker streets presented a difficult technical problem. BRASSAI"s solution was direct, primitive, and perfect. He focused his small plate camera on a tripod, opened the shutter when ready, and fired a flashbulb. If the quality of his light did not match that of the places where he worked, it was, for BRASSAI, better: straighter, more merciless, more descriptive of fact, and more in keeping with BRASSAI's own vision, which was as straightforward as a hammer.

When Paris de Nuit was published, the great photographer and theorist Dr.Peter Henry Emerson, then approaching eighty, wrote BRASSAI in care of his publisher, asking BRASSAI to please send his proper address, so that Emerson could send him the medal that he had awarded him for his splendid book. It is an interesting comment on the chaotic incoherence of photographic history that BRASSAI had never heard of Emerson.

from "Looking at Photographs" by John Szarkowski

- BRASSAI photo library -

BRASSAI / recommended books

BRASSAI: The Secret Paris of the 30's

The Secret Paris of the 30's is one of the most remarkable photographic memoirs ever published: like his predecessor Toulouse-Lautrec, Brassai chose to portray a hidden and daring subject matter.

Brassai : Paris By Night

Roaming Paris streets by night in the early 1930s, Brassai created arresting images of the city's dramatic nocturnal landscape. First published in French in 1932, this new edition brings one of Brassai's finest works back into print.

Brassai: The Eye of Paris

Brassai: The Eye of Paris is both the catalog of an exhibition of Brassai's photographs organized by the Houston Fine Arts Museum and a valuable biography of the artist. This recognizes the artist's talents in five different media--photography, filmmaking, sculpture, writing, and drawing--but focuses on what he is best known for: lyrical and penetrating photographs of the City of Light.

Brassai, Paris (Taschen 25th Anniversary Special Editins)

Including an extensive selection of Brassai's finest photographs and an essay describing his life and work, this book explores the world of Brassai in thematic chapters: Minotaure magazine, Paris at Night, Secret Paris, Day Visions, Artists of My Life, and Graffiti and Transmutations.

BRASSAI quotes

  • Photography in our time leaves us with a grave responsibility. While we are playing in our studios with broken flowerpots, oranges, nude studies and still lifes, one day we know that we will be brought to account: life is passing before our eyes without our ever having seen a thing.

See more BRASSAI quotes


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