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‘Brassaï’ Review: We See Paris Through His Lens

Brassaï’s ‘Avenue de l’Observatoire in the Fog’ (c. 1937)
Brassaï’s ‘Avenue de l’Observatoire in the Fog’ (c. 1937) Photo: Estate Brassaï Succession, Paris

San Francisco

Paris is a cityin France. Paris is also a city in films and songs, in poetry and prose, in paintings and dreams. If you can bring to mind an image of Paris, whether you have actually been there or not, it is probable that at least part of it is the creation of Gyula Halász (1899-1984), the Hungarian-born photographer who came to Paris in 1924 and took the pseudonym Brassaï, a reference to his hometown, Brassó. The “Brassaï” exhibition at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art has over 200 of his celebrated images, most of them taken between the two world wars; it was organized by Fundación MAPFRE of Spain and curated by Peter Galassi, the former chief curator of photography at New York’s Museum of Modern Art, who also edited the comprehensive catalog.

Brassaï

San Francisco Museum of Modern Art
Through Feb. 18, 2019

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Brassaï adopted a pseudonym because his original intention was to be a painter, and he initially considered his involvement in photography as scut work. He began as an agent placing photographs in illustrated magazines and newspapers; it was not until 1930 that he bought a camera, a Voigtländer Bergheil, and began peddling his own work. But he had met Eugène Atget, in 1925, and André Kertész, a fellow Hungarian, in 1926, so he had been exposed to some very fine photography, and it was not long before he established his own reputation. The publication of 63 pictures in “Paris de Nuit” (“Paris by Night”) in December 1932 was a decisive event not only for Brassaï, but for photography.

Brassaï, a restless, peripatetic and sociable man, wandered the Paris streets after dark. Paris had earned the sobriquet “the City of Light” because it early adopted gas lighting, thus making the streets safer after dark and giving rise to its notorious nightlife. By the time Brassaï began photographing, gaslights had mostly been replaced by electricity, but Brassaï made very sophisticated use of the new electric streetlamps to give his pictures atmosphere. In “Parisian Cobblestones” (1931-32) the rows of cobblestones get smaller as they rise up into the distance; it is the play of light, presumably from an electric streetlight, on their damp surface that animates them, that makes them interesting.

Brassaï’s ‘On the boulevard Saint-Jacques’ (1930-32)
Brassaï’s ‘On the boulevard Saint-Jacques’ (1930-32) Photo: Estate Brassaï Succession, Paris

The “Statue of Marshal Ney in the Fog” (1932) is backlit by two streetlamps so the statue, with its upraised sword, looms dramatically as a silhouette. The complex shadow of a “Buttress of the Elevated” (1935) is cast on an adjoining wall and looks suspiciously like the profile of a man. But it is people about at night whom Brassaï memorialized in the harsh available light that became a specialty. The “Lovers, boulevard Saint-Jacques” (c. 1932) are seen from behind sitting on a bench. “Two Caped Policemen on Bicycles” (1931-32) ride their rounds. The sturdy “Streetwalker, near place d’Italie” (1932), shot from behind, stands with her hands on her hips, her presence emphasized by light coming from an unseen source to the left. In other pictures that same woman and several other prostitutes are seen front on, offering themselves on the street.

The five menacing thugs in “Big Albert’s Gang, near the place d’Italie” (1932-33) stand together facing an intense light coming from around the corner.

One of the pictures in “Paris de Nuit”—“Chez Suzy” (1931-32)—showed a man entering a brothel. But Brassaï also went into the louche dives and swank purlieus of the city himself to take some of his best-known photographs. In “The Presentation, Chez Suzy” (1931-32) three naked women, arms akimbo, confront a man—actually Brassaï’s assistant, Gabriel Kiss. (Yes, the pictures Brassaï stage-managed raise questions of authenticity.) Two men dance in “Bal de la Montagne Sainte-Geneviève” (1932). “The Chinese Man” (1933) in a crowded bar is a study in isolation. As in many pictures, Brassaï makes clever use of mirrors in “Couple in a Café, near the place d’Italie” (c. 1932). The lesbian “Fat Claude and her Girlfriend at Le Monocle” (c. 1932) were one end of the social scale; “The Banker Lazard’s Table, Dinner of 500 Place Settings, la Nuit de Longchamp” (July 1938), the other. And the naked chorus girls in “‘The Regent’s Orgy’ at the Folies Bergère” (1931-32) shot from overhead in the flies—oolala.

Brassaï’s ‘Lovers’ (c. 1932)
Brassaï’s ‘Lovers’ (c. 1932) Photo: Estate Brassaï Succession, Paris

The exhibition includes a selection of Brassaï’s pictures of graffiti, another of Paris by day, and a generous showing of his portraits: Jacques Prévert, Lawrence Durrell, Pablo Picasso, Jean Genet, Henry Miller, Anaïs Nin, etc. They are not glamorized, but confront the camera as they would a friend.

In 1938 Bill Brandt, the outstanding British photographer of the 20th century, published “A Night in London”; Brandt had learned photography in Paris, and his book was clearly modeled on “Paris de Nuit.” Louis Stettner, an American photographer, organized a 1948 exhibition including Brassaï’s work at the Photo League in New York, thus influencing that city’s emerging generation of street photographers. Henry Miller called his friend “the eye of Paris,” but it is not just the French city we see with Brassaï’s vision, it encompasses all great cities.

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