Brassai was a Hungarian-born (1899) French photographer, poet, and sculptor, known primarily for his dramatic photographs of Paris at night. His original name was Gyula Halasz, but he wanted to be called Brassai, derived from the name of his native city, Brasso.
As a photographer, Brassai is identified with iconic images of Paris of the 1920s. In particular, he moved around his neighbourhood of Montparnasse documenting prostitutes, street cleaners, and other characters of the city nightlife. He is also known for his book, Paris de Nuit (Paris by Night), which had 64 photographs.
While he is famous for capturing the grittier aspects of the city, Brassai also dwelt upon high society, including the ballet, opera, and intellectuals—his acquaintances included the likes of Pablo Picasso, Salvador Dalí, Alberto Giacometti, and Henri Matisse.
His early years were tumultuous as they coincided with the times of war and conflicts. However he was fortunate to be mentored by many types of artistes. Consequently, when he was 32 years old his photographs started to appear regularly in crime and sex-oriented magazines, Paris Magazine, Pour lire à deux, and Scandale, and in the weeklies Vu, Voilá, and Regards.
His photographic career effectively soared after showing 100 mounted prints to the editor and the publisher of the magazine Vu. This was the forerunner for the photo book Paris de nuit (Paris by Night), which was published when Brassai was 33, and launched him into the charmed circles of Paris. It was the writer and friend, Henry Miller, who gave him his famous nickname, the ‘eye of Paris.’
The success of Paris by Night brought him contracts for further books, and commissions for publicity portraits of artists and writers, too. He was invited to photograph Pablo Picasso's studios, and these were published in the deluxe art magazine, Minotaure, which made him more respected among his peers.
At 34, Brassio became one of the first members of the venerable Rapho agency in Paris. And when he turned 36, he published his second picture book, Voluptés de Paris (Pleasures of Paris). However without his knowledge, the supporting text for his photographs approved by the publisher, goaded the reader to look at his photographs from a salacious and voyeuristic viewpoint. Brassai disowned the book—and insisted on overseeing all production aspects of future book publications.
By the time he was 36, Brassai had become a sought-after photographer and he was being commissioned by the upmarket American magazine, Harper's Bazaar.
When he was 41, due to the occupation of Paris by German army Brassai escaped to the French Riviera, but later came back to retrieve the negatives he had hidden in Paris. During the occupation of Paris, since photography on the streets was forbidden, Brassai engaged in drawing, sculpture and poetry. Post-WW II, his drawings were published in book form as Trente dessins (Thirty Drawings). However by 1945, Brassai restarted photography; two years later a number of his blown-up photographs of dimly lit Paris streets served as the backdrop for Prévert’s ballet Le Rendez-vous.
Notably, treatment of Brassai’s postwar pictures were reminiscent of his early work; where he preferred static over active subjects, imbuing even the most inanimate images with a warm sense of human life.
During this period he worked again for Harper's Bazaar, which besides being highly remunerative, allowed him to travel around the world. Brassai also began to indulge in writing, filmmaking and theater.
In his lifetime Brassai, wrote about 17 short stories, biographies and photo books including The Story of Maria; Henry Miller: The Paris Years; and Artists of My Life. In 1956 he won the award for ‘Most Original Film’ at the Cannes Film Festival for his movie Tant qu'il y aura des betes (As Long as there are Animals).
He was bestowed with many awards for his photography: the Gold Medal for Photography at the Venice Biennale; the Chevalier des Arts et des Lettres; and Chevalier de l'Order de la Legion d'honneur in France.
When he was in his 50s, Brassai photographed in color for the first time; as also travelled to the USA which included trips to New York, Chicago and Louisiana. He summarized his relationship with America thus: ‘I'm the opposite of Christopher Columbus ... this time it's America who has just discovered me.’
A multi-talented artiste, Brassai at the age of 62 published a photo book titled Graffiti, which had his pictures of inanimate and often abstract wall markings that captured the essence of Paris in a symbolic and mystical way.
Two years later Brassaï published Conversations with Picasso, his memoirs, of which Picasso remarked, ‘If you really want to know me read this book.’ At the age of 84, Brassai passed away in Beaulieu-sur-Mer, Alpes-Maritimes in the south of France.
Brassai was able to capture the essence of what he saw, be it light or night, in a manner that those who saw his images were, and continue to be able, to see as he did. As an artist and a photographer, the provocative nature of Brassai’s images have the timelessness needed to continue to captivate contemporary audiences.
To quote Brassai, ‘My images were surreal simply in the sense that my vision brought out the fantastic dimension of reality. My only aim was to express reality, for there is nothing more surreal than reality itself. If reality fails to fill us with wonder, it is because we have fallen into the habit of seeing it as ordinary.’
Siddharth Kumar is the Co-Founder & Lead Photographer SIDART Photography, a professional photography venture focusing on weddings, portraiture and commercial photography. After an 8-year stint in an MNC, he decided to pursue his passion for photography and music. In 2019, he was awarded Certificate of Honorable Mention by International Photography Awards (IPA), Los Angeles. In 2014, he won the First Prize at the International Photography Competition organized by Mindshare Worldwide. He holds a Grade 8 Certificate in Piano Performance from Trinity College London.
The facts and views expressed in the article are that of the author