The boy from Transylvania never slept at night. As soon as he got to Paris, he fell in love with its low-life, its high-life, its wet and empty streets. He became a noctambulist, walking the city after dark, wandering everywhere, from Montparnasse to Montmartre. Sometimes, he took a friend: he hung around the artists' cafes with Henry Miller, and went to dance-halls on the outskirts with the writer Raymond Queneau. But mostly, he went out by himself. He became, in Miller's phrase, "the Eye of Paris", always, Miller remembered, "on the look-out, sniffing the air, rummaging around in every nook and cranny, his gaze always far away. Everything, literally everything, was of interest to him." He walked until he could smell fresh croissants in the cafes and feel the still-wet ink on the morning papers. Only then did he go to bed.
Until that moment, he had been Gyula Halász. In Paris, he was Brassaï, and although it would be years before he picked up a camera, he was to become one of the most influential photographers of the 20th century. Halász arrived from Brasso (the town from which he took his name), then part of Hungary and now in Romania, in 1924. He had studied at the Academy of Fine Arts in Budapest, and at art school in Berlin. He wanted to be a painter, was confident of his talent, and had no interest in photography. He even said he felt contempt for the newer medium, and many years later was to regret having been unmoved when he met the great photographer Eugene Atget and saw his now famous work.
He earned money by writing articles for German and Hungarian newspapers, and throughout his life he wrote with eloquence and ease. He painted the odd portrait and sketched caricatures, but it wasn't much of a living. He had to hire photographers to illustrate the articles he wrote - André Kertész was among them - and after a while he thought he'd do better financially if he took the pictures himself. But these practical concerns weren't the only things on his mind. He later spoke of his conversion to photography as if he'd been driven to it, despite himself. Really, it was his life as a nightwalker that made him want to - or need to - take up a camera. He felt he had to record his nocturnal visions in some immediate way, and from that moment Brassaï was a new man. Although he was born in Brasso in 1899, he later said that Paris, 1933, was when he had come to life, and his real date and place of birth no longer held any meaning.
Centennial celebrations, however, have taken their cue from the date on his passport. The Pompidou Centre in Paris has organised a spectacular exhibition of his work, including drawings and sculptures, which will come to London in February next year. The exhibition kicks off with some of Brassaï's portraits of artists - Picasso, Matisse, Dali, Giacometti - as if to position him among more famous men, or to situate him in a particularly creative era. Although Brassaï published a wonderful book about his relationship with Picasso, he always wrote so well that it's hard to separate the truth from the myth. How friendly was he with that group? He claimed he was never a surrealist, except in that he aimed to give the everyday a "fantastical" slant, and yet he produced 150 photographs for their magazine, Minotaure. When reading his various books, letters and diary jottings, it's worth bearing in mind the fantastical slant he may have given many things.
An anecdote from his first days in Paris offers an early warning. Desperate for money, Brassaï writes up an entirely fabricated interview with Count Kokotzoff, the former Russian prime minister. He submits it to the editorial office, which immediately syndicates it to 15 German newspapers. A week or so later, the editorial office asks for the Count's address. Brassaï panics. Not only has he never met the Count, but he doesn't actually know if he is still alive. Several Russian friends insist the Count is dead. Brassaï finds him, however, in hiding from the Bolsheviks, somewhere near the Champs Elysées. He stakes out the Count's palace. He begs him not to refute the article. It is a tribute to Brassaï's charm that the Count agrees to ignore the article, and even writes Brassaï a letter expressing the high esteem in which he now holds him.
It was a peculiar talent of his to fit in with every class of society. He became a protégé of one Madame D-B, who gave him a studio and introduced him to the rich and famous. Meanwhile, as he wandered the streets, he found that strangers "bared their souls" to him. He was a listener and a chameleon, his friends all said; he could put himself at anyone's level, he always observed and never judged. At the end of 1929 he bought his first camera, and put these skills to a new use. He began to capture what he saw. Success was almost instant.
What Brassaï saw, of course, was the Paris night. He had chosen photography, he later said, partly because it was "a medium specific to our time", but since it was also the medium of writing in light he had to make a new art form out of it by writing in darkness. In an article written in 1933, he explained how he made up his technique as he went along: how he waited four minutes or more for an exposure, how he avoided the immediate light of the lamp-posts, diffusing it behind trees or with distance, reflecting it in rainy streets, using only available light but excluding its source from the frame. It was important to him to capture that strange lighting, to seize the night as he knew it, full of unnerving shadows. His photos seem to be recording some crime, or searching for it. They are not crime scenes in the way that Weegee's are - flashgun shots of real police evidence; nor do they depict crimes in the metaphorical way Atget's were said to - portraying the sharp, unpeopled detail of a possible aftermath.
Brassaï's photos have the furtive curiosity of the stalker. They look as if they are evoking crime in the way that the photographer in Antonioni's Blow-Up innocently did: the murder must be in there somewhere, you think as you look at them: is it by the canal, next to the jail, between the glistening rails of the Gare St Lazare, or in the crowded wings of the Folies Bergère stage? "The night works by suggestion," Brassaï said, "it never fully reveals things."
He was regularly commissioned by a penny magazine called Détective. Many say it was just a job, like the articles he used to dash off for the papers, giving them titles such as Paris Dog Cemetery and How Sardines Lose Their Heads. But I think his work for Détective says a good deal about Brassaï's imagination. He once photographed a narrative series, called A Man Dies In The Street, in which he recorded a growing and diminishing crowd around a corpse, and the paramedics who take it away. He gave other photographs titles that evoked Détective's style of fiction. A group of gangsters climbing a wall is called "Pour un roman policier", which is translated in its English caption as "For a detective story", but rather than a commission it is more likely to mean "towards a detective novel": a tribute, or an offering, that might one day expand and add up to a thriller. In any case, in the work he did for that magazine, fact and fiction merged: on one occasion, a gangster came to his door and held a knife to his throat, not for having photographed him, but because the caption in the magazine had labelled him an "assassin".
How avant-garde Brassaï was can be seen from the most random-seeming historical details. For example, he was arrested three times while working because, when he told the police he was taking photos, they thought this a poor excuse - everyone knew you couldn't take photos at night; he must have been dumping a body in the canal. Though innocent on those occasions, Brassaï was guilty on others: in the 30s, taking photographs in brothels was illegal. Brothels themselves weren't illegal, but they had to have their shutters closed. And since it was assumed that the shutters would have to be opened in order to let in the light for a photograph, this odd law was established: brothels were to remain enclosed, and unrecorded. Yet some of Brassaï's most famous images were taken in brothels, or "houses of illusion", as they were called. They are artful, knowing references to the paintings of Degas (whose favourite brothel Brassaï fondly mentions), but they are also hasty, tilted snapshots, taken in the heat of a ravaging moment or in the rush of undress. In one photograph, a woman in a black camisole, silk stockings and snakeskin heels is seen from behind, washing herself in a bidet. In the corner, a man is hunched over, tying his shoe, while his braces are still undone. They have pulled the curtain tightly shut, wrapping its edge around a bathroom pipe, so intense is their need for privacy. How, then, have they been photographed? Where is Brassaï? Can we really be seeing this?
Famous as these photos now are, there is still something shocking about them: it's not their nudity, it's their very existence. They are like early fly-on-the-wall documentaries - impossible, intrusive, abrasive, riveting. Later on, it became known that the man in this photo, as in the ones of Suzy's brothel, in which the naked prostitute stands by a sink or is embraced while showing her pubis through her fringed skirt, was Brassaï's assistant. Oddly, though, this doesn't make the photographs any less voyeuristic, it just makes Brassaï more complicit. He is both an actor and a voyeur in a scene of his own construction - a revelation that has presented a problem to commentators on Brassaï's work. It is often said that his photographs have a documentary quality to them, but, as the exhibition curator Alain Sayag points out in his catalogue essay, Brassaï, on the contrary, set everything up very carefully. The punter was his assistant, and passers-by were his friends. So what was Brassaï doing? Some years later, when he had photographed Picasso's sculptures, the artist said his pictures were so "truthful" they were "like a blood sample that allows you to analyse and diagnose what I was at those moments". But on another day in Picasso's studio, as Brassaï was photographing his chair and slippers, Picasso stated that the photo would not be "a document", because Brassaï had moved his slippers. "I never place them that way," he said. No one other than Picasso, however, would know that, and the question that arises then is why Brassaï chose to compose his scenes with this documentary aesthetic.
"I invent nothing, I imagine everything," Brassaï once said, explaining that what he depicted was never false, it was just part of the way he saw the world. With this in mind, his pictures become more admirable than mere documents, and more complicated than photographs that set out to be art (such as those of Man Ray, to whom Brassaï claimed to be "diametrically opposed"). Brassaï, a Hungarian émigré in love with Paris and the varied spectacles of its night, found a way of filtering through a camera the images he had in his head. He did not just photograph what was there, he mixed what was there with his own, subjective, love-struck gaze. Late in life, Brassaï was asked why he had taken up photography, since he had held the medium in such low regard before. He replied that he needed an immediate way to record what he had seen in his "nocturnal wanderings". He had walked the streets of Paris for six years before he took a single photo and, he said, "I could no longer hold the pictures in me." It is a wonderful phrase - as if Brassaï's mind were the camera, and the technical apparatus just a necessary way of developing the latent images. He himself wrote a similar thing about Marcel Proust, imagining him to have collected snapshots throughout his life, which he remembered later: "Proust seemed to me to be a sort of photographer of mental images, with his own body as the sensitised plate." It seems logical, then - Brassaï's photographs cannot be documentary or, if they are, they're only records of the inside of his head.
Although Brassaï photographed his fancy new friends as well - their balls and their dinners, their masks and their dresses - it was the seamy side of Paris he most actively sought out. "Rightly or wrongly," he wrote, "it seemed to me then that this underground world was the least cosmopolitan, most lively, most authentic side of Paris, and that in the colourful figures who inhabited its underside there survived, from era to era, almost without change, the folklore of its most distant past." He photographed working girls in the street, he roamed the carnivalesque world of the funfair. He met Conchita the stripper ("that white negress"), and the depressed Gorilla-man with his baby son. He had his wallet stolen when he was following the gangsters in Big Albert's Gang, and didn't mind - "They got the loot, I got the pictures. It made sense. We each had a job to do."
In each of these cases, Brassaï got to know his subjects. He spoke to them for so long and with such familiarity that eventually he added to his chameleon nature a facility for a kind of anthropological ventriloquism. He wrote about them, reporting, inimitably, their thoughts and their speech. He noted of the gangsters, for example, that they had "20 expressions for love, about 30 for kissing, 10 for arousal, as many again for orgasm, more than 70 - a record! - for sex. 50 words describe the male organ, there are 15 for testicles, 20 or so for the female genitals, 20 for breasts, 20 for rear end." And he recorded that gangsters all gave themselves slang names that were words for fish ("mackerel", "herring"), while the police were named after birds ("chickens", "partridges" and, for cycling policemen, "swallows"). Hence, a gangster hide-out was an "aquarium", and prison was a "chicken coop". Brassaï even published a little book, The Story Of Marie, in which each page is a prose poem in the voice of a cleaning lady. He meant to add more, so that all of Paris could be heard to speak their mind aloud.
In a sense, though, that is what his best photographs were. His aim, he said, was to make it look as though it had been the subjects' idea, not his, to take the photos. His pictures of brothels and bars, gangsters and sculptors all seem to be taken by one of them, as if the camera itself were a part of that world, snapping in artful and sympathetic surveillance. By all sorts of ruses, Brassaï managed to get into to secret places - dodgy dancehalls and high-class opium dens - places which, as he put it, "refused to be witnessed". It was not enough to photograph canals and streets, he wanted to be indoors, to see Paris from inside out. Often he would spot an apartment at the top of a building he liked the look of, and he would wake up its shocked inhabitants, just to photograph the view. He was hardly ever refused entry, but he remembered one bitter occasion in particular. He knocks on the door of a seventh-floor attic, and a man and woman answer. They don't look directly at him, they don't turn on the light, but they ask him what he wants. "I'd like to see the view of Paris from your window," Brassaï tells them. "Go ahead, sir," the man replies, "have a look. We are not familiar with that view ourselves. We're both blind." Filled with shame, Brassaï runs away and never takes the picture. It was as if the Eye of Paris had come face to face with its own death.
The photographs he took at night made Brassaï's name. By 1933, his first book, Paris After Dark, had come out, and even before that he was so in demand it was as if, he wrote to his parents, "I were the only reporter in Paris". There was the commission to photograph Picasso's sculptures. (In Conversations With Picasso, Brassaï mentions having broken one of his sculptures while trying to photograph it. Picasso joked about this: "I told you so!" he said to a group of friends as Brassaï spilled something. "Brassaï breaks everything, knocks everything over, floods everything. Tomorrow he may start a fire here.") He met Salvador Dalí when Dalí still had a small moustache, and did some work for him. He photographed the phallic Art Nouveau swirls of the Metro and, most memorably, an orgasmic girl on a bed. Dalí incorporated this picture into a collage of his own for Minotaure, entitled The Phenomenon Of Ecstasy, in which several ecstatic female faces are overheard by a series of male ears. It was undoubtedly a reference to the notorious, banned film of the previous year, Extase, which made the future Hedy Lamarr famous. Critics have said that since the photo was Dalí's idea, Brassaï's credit is lessened, but Brassaï's remains the iconic image. Seen on its own, the photograph has a different charm - grubby and sensual, an elongated body and bare, scrunched shoulder leading to a half-open mouth. In another print, he enlarged the woman's face; it becomes a different image again: this time, the features of her face are the almost abstract subject - the slits of her closed eyes, the arched lines of her brows, the even squares of her teeth. And a small detail suddenly springs to attention: a hole in the bedcover is the same shape as her mouth, open as if ripples of ecstasy had been emitted all around her.
As a result of his surrealist connections, Brassaï did a series of portraits of artists in their studios - Maillol, Matisse, Dalí, Giacometti were all delighted with their photographs - which later became a book. But soon, perhaps as a result of his contact with these people, perhaps out of nostalgia or instinct, he began to yearn to return to "the plastic arts". He showed Picasso some of his drawings, and Picasso was so impressed he didn't understand why Brassaï had chosen to specialise in photography. "You're a born draughtsman," he told him. "Why don't you go on with it? You have a gold mine and you're working a salt mine." Brassaï defended his choice, saying that he didn't consider photography as "a second profession". But the truth was more complicated. He had been disillusioned with photography for some time.
At the end of 1937 he wrote to his parents in Brasso: "Photography is no longer a labour of love for me and I'm going to give it up as soon as possible." The battle to free himself from photography, as he put it, was ongoing. "Sometimes," he wrote in retrospect, "I was close to despair." Brassaï left Paris in 1940, along with some other friends, including Prévert. But he soon became anxious about his negatives, and returned. He wrote home asking for his mother's birth certificate, adding ominously, "it is sufficient to prove that two of one's grandparents are Aryan". But his war was, apparently, relatively uneventful. He spent time with Picasso in his studio, went back to drawing, and after the war married Gilberte Mercedes-Boyer, who had shared none of his pre-war life. He became a naturalised Frenchman, he made several small sculptures and wrote a great deal, publishing books on Henry Miller and Proust. He also accepted regular photographic assignments for Harper's Bazaar. But the fact was that after the war nothing was really the same. His photographs became more anecdotal, less timeless; destined, a cynic might say, for the picture postcard.
Brassaï had a number of projects he had been working on - a book called Intimate Paris, for example, commissioned by a newspaper proprietor who also owned a brothel and a condom factory; a book of his narrative series, such as A Man Dies In The Street and The Balloon Seller; a book of nudes, a book of cacti. But it wasn't until 1976 that his second book of night photographs was published, under the title The Secret Paris Of The 1930s. Here, he had the chance to look back, to reflect on his nocturnal wanderings and, more strikingly, to discover that much of what he had captured had already disappeared: the tram-rail polishers, the cesspit pumpers, the market workers, the rag-pickers, the tramps. Several times he makes statements of almost pitiful nostalgia: there should be museums for pavements, for example, or reservations for homeless people like those the Americans made for their Indians. This kind of comment seems so silly it is unintelligible, except as the unformulated realisation that his world was gone. The only things left were the photographs. He died in 1984, aged 84. Perhaps his pictures were always meant to be left as records for posterity. When Paris After Dark came out in 1933, one of the reviews contained a strangely prescient remark. "Photographers of 1933," it read, "you are working for the year 2000: only then will your talent be recognised."
Brassaï: No Ordinary Eyes, is published by Thames & Hudson at £48.
Brassai (1899–1984) was the first and is still the most famous photographer to chronicle Paris after dark. Born in Hungary, he came to the French capital in 1924, working first as a journalist and then embracing photography, but it was the Paris of the 1930s that forms the bedrock of his body of work.
Walking the city’s streets at night, Brassai captured a previously unseen world on camera. He shows us every face and every facet, from tough guys and showgirls to prostitutes and pleasure-seekers, from the bustling cafés and dance halls to the stillness of deserted streets and mist-shrouded monuments. Through his eyes, Paris becomes a world of shadows, in which light, the prerequisite for any photograph, is reduced to dimly lit windows, streetlamps in the fog, or reflections on a rain-soaked pavement.
This book brings together some of the best-known images from Brassai’s classic Paris After Dark and The Secret Paris of the 30’s, showcasing them alongside previously unpublished photos and archive material. It places his work in its historical and artistic context, analyzing the unique nature of his photographic vision: part reportage, part social document, part poetic exploration.
The reproduction of photographs on the printed page has grown increasingly sophisticated, so that at last the blacks are bottomless, the grays are pearly, the lights are warmly alluring…The nocturnal theme gives the book a sense of narrative, as if all of these adventures are unfolding in the course of a single, very long, endlessly surprising night.
— Luc Sante The New York Review of Books
Stunning …the authors have pieced together this incredible moment in history and give readers a glimpse into the world of one of the most celebrated photographers of the 20th century.
— Publishers Weekly
— France Magazine
Much of Brassaï’s photographic career is a seamless rhapsody to Paris after dark …all of it, including previously unpublished pieces, celebrated in [this] newly released collection.
With unprecedented scope, this 312-page tome takes us from glistening rain-soaked streets to illicit houses of pleasure and back again.
— American Photo
The coffee-table format and the crisp reproduction values do Brassai’s incredibly poetic eye and his black-and-white work justice.
— THE Magazine
Brings us face to face with all the pleasure-seeking patrons, pedestrians, street toughs and the homeless in these classic noire photographs.
Definitive proof that the night belongs to the Hungarian-born photographer Brassaï.
— Zoom Street
Lush…Essays by Aubenas and Bajac …put Brassaï’s enormous body of work in perspective.
— Lavender Magazine
Provides the most complete look at Brassaï’s nocturnal photographs yet produced. Many will be new to readers…Thoroughly researched and well written, excellently designed and beautifully printed, this is one of the better photographic books published in 2013…Highly recommended.
Sylvie Aubenas is Chief Curator of the Department of Prints and Photographs at the Bibliotheque Nationale de France in Paris.
Quentin Bajac, formerly Chief Curator of Photography at the Centre Pompidou, is now Chief Curator of Photography at the Museum of Modern Art.