A leading light of early European photography, Brassaï’s documentary images of Paris and its night-time denizens brought new power and directness to the medium. Here, we try to share his mastery by looking at three defining aspects of his style.
A word on photography
I didn’t take to photography easily. Its static nature left me cold. Where was the real art in it? How could people give it equal status to painting or sculpture? I couldn’t distinguish a Great photographer from somebody taking photos of Great things.
But after a couple of fantastic exhibitions in Paris a few years ago, something clicked.
It boils down to this.
Great photographers have an eye for the most intense, colourful or clashing moments in the emotional landscapes of humans and nature. They find that unique angle, that precise shade of light, the split second of confluence where all is said. Here, a picture will truly speak a thousand words. Brassaï believed:
Chance is always there. We all use it. The difference is a poor photographer meets chance one out of a hundred times. A good photographer meets chance all the time.
Photography also has the power to defy the world’s fleeting character by giving permanent form to those captured moments.
That’s kind of a big deal – we live trapped in our brain’s interpretation of time as a linear progression, which means we’re under the impression that everything is in constant motion. To be able to grasp a unique instant and eternalise it photographically brings us back to the living stillness we all actually exist within, but cannot process. (The next TGE sermon is on this very topic.)
Brassaï was the first to show me what that looked like in reality. Since then, Great photography has stimulated me every bit as much as the most intriguing wine, powerful television and noteworthy cheerleader for the Dallas Cowboys.
Few noteworthy photographers have come to the medium as adults. Brassaï is a conspicuous exception. Born in 1899 in what was (at the time) Hungary, he came to it as a 30 year old on the back of studying at the art academies of Budapest/Berlin and serving in the First World War. After moving to the Paris he adored in 1923, he worked at drawing, sculpture and writing, ultimately adopting the camera. Not as a toy, but as a tool to identify the realities he felt other art forms (and language) failed to capture. He went on to define European photography, dominating the 1930s alongside Henri Cartier-Bresson.
Three things make him unique and worth your attention.
1. Brassaï’s remarkable eye for the genuine
Brassaï’s work is a testament to his own hunger to find and express truth. His ability stems from a total embrace of his surroundings and a recognition that there’s a story behind every individual and every scene.
Brassaï’s time was divided with equal ease between Parisian high society and its murky, low-life underbelly. But his camera was reserved for the weird, the unclear, the serene and the downright ugly. His subjects are the people on the fringes of society, the forgotten Paris, the transvestites, the prostitutes, the homeless, but sometimes also the lovers. And of course, the still, empty sites and streets of Paris.
Brassaï sought only to observe – not judge – different existences. In his own words:
My work has been one long reportage on human life.
Perhaps as a result, the most distinctive characteristic of his work is its poise. Whether it’s his street scenes or portraits, he seems to seize the essential characteristics of things, which gives them a kind of naturalness and creates a mood of permanence. It’s incredibly deft. We’re left almost unaware of his act of photography – it feels more like the subject of each photo is interpreting itself. Henry Miller would one day note:
Brassaï is a living eye… his gaze pierces straight to the heart of truths in everything.
His confidence in what was/wasn’t worthy of depiction resulted in him only taking two or three pictures of each subject, whereas his peers would usually take 20-30 shots, in the hope one might come out on-point:
I find it concentrates one to shoot less. When I succeed [. . .], I feel that I have really made it myself, that picture, not won it in a lottery.
2. Brassaï loved the night and was among the first to harness its photographic potential
Ironically for someone so attached to the City of Light, Brassaï’s most interesting work was nocturnal, and compiled into a book entitled Paris by Night. It’s a stunning collection of black and white images that juxtapose gentle, luminous nightscapes with innovative documentary-style shots of the city’s night-time characters. He enjoyed an almost mystical relationship with darkness:
Night does not show things, it suggests them. It disturbs and surprises us with its strangeness.
Paris by Night is also a revolutionary technical achievement. In an era of slow lenses and even slower film, photographers rarely worked after dark. Brassaï consciously chose to master the darkness, despite the enormous inadequacies of his equipment.
He manipulated the night to achieve the perfect tone, inventing ingenious tricks to give pictures both softness and luminosity. Like using flash powder and his training as a painter to frame shots so that small areas of light pierced large areas of shadow. Or timing extended exposure times by how long it took him to smoke a Gauloise.
On the back of this unprecedented mastery of night-time conditions, he was quickly adopted in surrealist circles and developed close friendships with the likes of Picasso, Dali, Matisse and Miller.
3. Brassaï knew how to make a photo intimate
Brassaï wasn’t interested in catching his subject off-guard. He wanted his subjects to consciously participate in his artistic event. Whereas this artificial set-up could have detracted from the trueness Brassaï was so intent on capturing, his approach in fact allowed the subject to interpret him/herself, on his film. As Jean Cocteau once reminded us:
Art is a lie that tells the truth.
Brassaï’s command of intimacy was not dependent on having human subjects – he captured monuments and urban landscapes of what he considered the world’s most beautiful city with the same eye. This intimacy isn’t a mere result of his technical nous. It’s also a reflection of his non-judgmental outlook on the world, and the resulting humanity that underpins his style. When you look at his work, you can sense that his subjects were not only complicit in his photos, they were kind of his friends, too.
Editing software could not have added any more sincerity or clarity to his work. His prints can look primitive if you’re used to modern cameras, but the more you explore the work of his peers at the time, the more Brassaï’s phenomenal skill becomes apparent.
Perhaps the Greatest compliment of all came from New York’s MoMA which, in 1969, commented:
His pictures reveal that permanence of form which is the visual embodiment of primal meaning.
Brassaï is a Great starting point for anyone interested in documentary-style photography or looking to gain familiarity with the big pioneers of the medium. For more of his work, click on the video that heads this post or drop us an email.