The secret Paris of the 30’s was probably the first photo book that caught my interest. The images were mysterious and charismatic, everything was shot at night. Prostitutes, lovers, criminals and foggy landscapes, all in chapters accompanied by the photographer’s stories.
Back then I didn’t know if I wanted to be a writer, a photographer or a filmmaker, and seeing how Brassaï had managed to combine text and image really inspired me.
You can see more of Brassaï’s work on Flickr
Brassaï’s photographs are not manipulated, but even so, you can tell he worked alongside the Surrealists: The images/ scenes are a bit like found objects, and they often imply more than they show, leaving lots of room for interpretation. In fact he also did a series called Involuntary Sculptures which really are found objects photographed.
“And the external world is reborn upon his paper, natural and more than natural, beautiful and more than beautiful, strange and endowed with an impulsive life like the soul of its creator. The phantasmagoria has been distilled from nature.”
These words were written by Baudelaire in 1863 about Constantin Guys, The painter of modern life. Brassaï compared himself to Constantin Guys when he defined his vision and aesthetics as a photographer in the introduction to Camera in Paris (1949).
In the early 1860s Constantin Guys worked for The Illustrated London News. His drawings were turned into woodcuts and used for illustrating the latest from Paris; war, fashion, opera, etc.
The fact that Constantin Guys was an anonymous character allowed Baudelaire to create an ideal “painter of modern life” in his essay: a philosopher, a flaneur, a poet, a novelist, a moralist. Not an artist, but a reporter: “a genius with a pronounced literary element” who wanted to see and record all, and had an interest in the most trivial things, like a child: “the child sees everything in a state of newness; he is always drunk.” A traveler, who’s most important qualities were curiosity and a love of life: “…the painter of the passing moment and of all the suggestions of eternity that it contains.”
“He is looking for that quality which you must allow me to call ‘modernity’; for I know of no better word to express the idea I have in mind. He makes it his business to extract from fashion whatever element it may contain of poetry within history, to distill the eternal from the transitory”…“By ‘modernity’ I mean the ephemeral, the fugitive, the contingent, the half of art whose other half is the eternal and the immutable.
It’s interesting for a photographer to have Baudelaire’s modern painter as an ideal, since Baudelaire was no great fan of photography. Photography depicted the world realistically and truthfully, and thus attracted the public, who had a taste for truth that could not be combined with a love of beauty, Baudelaire wrote in The Modern Public and Photography: “…art is losing in self-respect, is prostrating itself before external reality, and the painter is becoming more and more inclined to paint, not what he dreams, but what he sees.”
“What is pure art according to the modern idea? It is creation of an evocative magic, containing at once the object and the subject, the world external to the artist and the artist himself.” Baudelaire explains in the essay Philosophic Art. Modern Art was to seek the magic union of object and subject, the inner and outer world.
Here’s Brassaï and some other old masters coupled with Gershwin on YouTube:
“Brassaï (pseudonym of Gyula Halász) (9 September 1899 – 8 July 1984) was a Hungarian photographer, sculptor, and filmmaker who rose to fame in France.
Gyula Halász was born in Brassó (Braşov), in Hungary, now Romania, to a Hungarian father and an Armenian mother. He is sometimes incorrectly described as Jewish. At age three, his family moved to live in Paris, France for a year, while his father, a Professor of Literature, taught at the Sorbonne. As a young man, Gyula Halász studied painting and sculpture at the Academy of Fine Arts in Budapest, before joining a cavalry regiment of the Austro-Hungarian army, where he served until the end of the First World War. In 1920 Halász went to Berlin, where he worked as a journalist and studied at the Berlin-Charlottenburg Academy of Fine Arts.
In 1924 he moved to Paris where he would live the rest of his life. In order to learn the French language, he began teaching himself by reading the works of Marcel Proust. Living amongst the huge gathering of artists in the Montparnasse Quarter, he took a job as a journalist. He soon became friends with Henry Miller, Léon-Paul Fargue, and the poet Jacques Prévert.
Gyula Halász’s job and his love of the city, whose streets he often wandered late at night, led to photography. He later wrote that photography allowed him to seize the Paris night and the beauty of the streets and gardens, in rain and mist. Using the name of his birthplace, Gyula Halász went by the pseudonym “Brassaï,” which means “from Brasso.” As Brassaï, he captured the essence of the city in his photographs, publishing his first book of photographs in 1933 titled “Paris de nuit” (“Paris by Night”). His efforts met with great success, resulting in his being called “the eye of Paris” in an essay by his friend Henry Miller. In addition to photos of the seedier side of Paris, he also provided scenes from the life of the city’s high society, its intellectuals, its ballet, and the grand operas. He photographed many of his great artist friends, including Salvador Dalí, Pablo Picasso, Henri Matisse, Alberto Giacometti, plus many of the prominent writers of his time such as Jean Genet, Henri Michaux and others.”