Brassaï

Summary

Brassaï, pseudonym of Gyula Halász (Brașov, September 9, 1899 – Èze, July 8, 1984), was a Hungarian photographer naturalized French. Famous for its nocturnal views of the city and for the surrealist vein of his photography. He was also interested in high society, intellectuals, theater and opera. He immortalized, among others, Salvador Dali, Pablo Picasso, Henri Matisse and Alberto Giacometti. He also tried his hand at writing, sculpture and cinema, all his great passions.

Braşov is today a city in Romania, but in 1899, when Brassaï was born, the south-eastern region of Transylvania belonged to the Hungarian territory. He later adopted the pseudonym of Brassaï, at the beginning of his career, in memory of his land of origin (it means “of Braşov” – Brasso, in Hungarian).When he was only three years old, Brassaï moved with his family to Paris; his father was a professor of literature at the Sorbonne. He studied at the Academy of Fine Arts in Budapest before enlisting in the cavalry of the Austro-Hungarian army for the duration of the First World War. In 1920 he went to live in Berlin, working as a journalist and resuming his studies at the Academy. His work as a journalist allowed him to travel throughout Europe, but it was in Paris that Brassaï developed his artistic talent, and began his profession as a photographer. The most significant period of his career is the one between the two world wars.

Alternatives:The 30s and MontparnasseThe Thirties and MontparnasseThe 1930s and Montparnasse

In 1924 Brassaï decided to move back to Paris on a permanent basis. He began to frequent Montparnasse, the beating heart of artistic life at the time, approaching the movement of futurism and its most famous exponents. He met and befriended writers, poets, men of letters and artists, many of whom will be very important pieces in his artistic vision and life. Among the prominent friendships are Jacques Prévert, whose work he particularly appreciated, and Henry Miller. From Paris he will work as a foreign correspondent for some of the most important Hungarian and Romanian newspapers, and it will be in this period of intense research of stories that he will realize that the only means by which reality becomes representable is photography. Key personality of this epiphany is Andre Kertesz, Hungarian photographer naturalized American. In the same period Brassaï began working as a photographer and journalist for the magazine Minotaure, the main publication of surrealism, in this period he experimented with portraiture and became the official portraitist of the magazine. Among the artists he portrays are Dali, Breton, Giacometti and Picasso. It will be in this period that Brassaï will develop the surrealist imprint that characterizes his photographic style, later the artist will be invited several times by Breton to join the official group of surrealists, but always refuse not recognizing his work as part of the current. Once rooted in the bowels of the Parisian territory, his photographic attention to the city became absolute. In 1932 Picasso entrusted him with the task of documenting his work as a sculptor. In 1933 he published his first book of photographs, “Paris de nuit”, which was a great success, especially in the artistic environment. Henry Miller nicknamed him “the eye of Paris”. The publication received a lot of appreciation in the artistic and intellectual world of the time, even if it was looked at with suspicion by the world of photography, which recognized Brassaï”s merits some time later, after the second world war. Two years later he published a second collection: Voluptés de Paris (Pleasures of Paris), which was also a great success especially in the artistic and intellectual environment. In the 40”s Brassaï also collaborated with the famous magazine Harper”s Bazaar.

Alternatives:From the 40s onwardsFrom the 1940s onwardsFrom the 40”s onwardsFrom the ”40s onwards

During the years of the Nazi occupation in Paris it was not allowed to photograph in the streets, so the photographer left the city to head to the south of the French Riviera and resumed sculpture and drawing, arts in which he had specialized at university. At the end of the war the photographer returned to Paris and to his activity, publishing in 1946 a collection of drawings, Trente Dessins, in which there is also a poem by Jaques Prévert . In 1948 he married Gilberte Boyer, and finally took French citizenship, which until then had not been provided.In 1956 his film Tant qu”il y aura des bêtes won the Special Grand Prix of the Jury as the most original film at the Cannes Film Festival.In 1968 the Museum of Modern Art in New York dedicated a retrospective to the photographer, a fundamental recognition for his career.He was awarded the title of Knight of Arts and Letters in 1974 and Knight of the Legion of Honor in 1976. In 1978, he won the International Prize for Photography in Paris.

He wrote 17 books and numerous articles, including, in 1948, the novel Histoire de Marie, published with an introduction by Henry Miller. In addition, the University of Chicago edited and translated Letter to My Parents and Conversations with Picasso (1964).

He died on July 8, 1984 in Èze, in the Alpes-Maritimes, and was buried at Montparnasse Cemetery in Paris.

In 2000, Gilberte, Brassaï”s widow, organized a large commemorative exhibition at the Centre Pompidou in Paris.

Brassaï”s photographic style is very close to surrealism, both for the themes and for the choices of light. Nevertheless the photographer has never considered himself a surrealist, having as his main objective to objectify reality, and not to evade the representation of it:

His photography is rigorously in black and white, the subjects often have soft outlines, the light is often obtained only from street lamps, with the consequence of creating dark images with dreamlike atmospheres. His favorite subject is the night, and in particular the Parisian night in the Montparnasse district, which he helped to make legend. Even when the images are sharp, shadows are always at the center of Brassaï”s photography, which is characterized by a bohemian imagery with dark, almost ghostly accents, which always leaves a sense of unease in those who admire the shot. He loved Paris by night or in the rain, the villas, the gardens, the Seine and the timeless streets of the old quarters. The places, even the best known of the French capital, always have an aura of mystery and unresolved, giving the feeling of being out of time, it is as if at night the places take on a new identity, they could be anywhere at any time.In over half of Brassaï”s shots there are no human figures, often instead there are large patches of light that seem to have no contours and that transfigure the deserted urban environments, to suggest infinite imaginary scenarios, as if the photo there was always a missing element that is in the eyes of the beholder. Very often the photographer uses mirrors to enlarge the immortalized scene and give the viewer a new perspective with which to look at the image. He was defined by John Szarkowski as a “Bizarre Angel”, for his ability to recreate order from chaos, and his eye was often defined with adjectives such as “living” or “insatiable”. In addition to portraits, which he experimented with especially early in his career, Brassaï experimented with different photographic styles, ranging from still life to the artistic nude, to the documentation of graffiti found around the city and his famous night views. There are several shots that tell the story of the people of the night including the prostitutes of the closed houses, the underworld and workers. In the photographer”s portfolio there are also shots taken during the day, evoking French humanist photography.

Alternatives:The techniqueTechniqueTechnology

All of Brassaï”s night shots were presumably taken with long exposure times. Legend has it that the photographer would shoot and leave the camera still for the time it took him to smoke a Gauloises cigarette, after which he would pick up the camera and return to his room at the Hôtel des Terrasses, where he would develop the shot in a small dark room behind a curtain. The shots were made in such a way that small areas of light, often street lamps or reflections of wet roads, crossed the areas of shadow; the light, even if little, was able to define the shapes in the dark and create a contrast that especially in the printing phase gives an important depth to the subjects. Brassaï was also an innovator: when he tried his hand at moving subjects, he developed his own method for combining pose and snapshot. Thanks to the pose he was able to insert the fixed element, while the moving element was photographed thanks to the magnesium flash.

Sources

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