Paris Photographers: Brassaï, The Transylvanian Eye

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Paris Photographers: Brassaï, The Transylvanian Eye
Brassaï, born Gyula Halász in 1899, was a Hungarian–French sculptor, writer, filmmaker and photographer who rose to international fame in France during the 20th century. He was born to an Armenian mother and Hungarian father in the ancient village of Brașov, a city in the Transylvania region of Romania, ringed by the Carpathian Mountains. When he was three, his family moved to Paris for a year while his father, a professor of French literature, taught at the Sorbonne. Although Halász was very young, the year in Paris left him with vivid memories of Buffalo Bill’s Circus and the Indian Parade from which his considerable curiosity in the visually unusual grew. As a young man, Halász studied painting and sculpture at the Hungarian Academy of Fine Arts in Budapest and the Berlin-Charlottenburg Academy of Fine Arts. In 1924 he moved to Paris where he spent the rest of his life, joining a handful of other Hungarian emigrants including Robert Capa, among the greatest combat and adventure photographers in history, and André Kertész, the father of photojournalism, who later became Halász’s mentor. Halász worked as a journalist, writing for Hungarian newspapers and magazines while living among a remarkable enclave of artists on the left bank of Paris in Montparnasse. American writers such as F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, and Henry Miller rubbed shoulders with exiles who fled their country’s dictatorships, including the Lithuanian (Soutine), the Italian (Modigliani), and the Russian (Chagall). To learn the French language, Halász began teaching himself by reading the works of Marcel Proust, the poetry of André Breton, Louis Aragon, and Paul Eluard. He attended gallery shows of the painters Max Ernst, Joan Miró and Salvador Dali, sculpture exhibitions of Arp, and screenings of films by Luis Buñuel, René Clair and Jean Cocteau. All of these men proved to be influential to his evolving oeuvre. Although he had met a few photographers, including Eugène Atget, he took little interest in the craft, at first considering it to be an inferior form of artistic expression. It was the work, and mentorship, of André Kertész which showed him it was possible to record his visions while wandering Parisian streets at night. Halász preferred Paris between sunset and sunrise because he felt the dark liberated the desires that during the day were overshadowed by reason. He walked for hours around the city in the late evening, sometimes alone, sometimes with a companion. Among those who often went with him were the poet, Jacques Prévert and the writer, Henry Miller, who considered Montparnasse “the navel of the world”. In 1930 Halász picked up his first Voightlander camera. Initially, he worked simply with available light, using long exposures on a tripod, and eventually the newly-introduced flash bulb. He knocked on doors asking to be allowed in to take pictures which revealed the more seedy characters of bohemian Parisian life, including sewer workers, police, prostitutes, gangsters, pimps, backstage scenes in night clubs and brothels, and brazen shows of Sapphic love. Even though it may now have lost its ability to shock, in the 1930s lesbianism was taboo. Halász was working only 30 years after the death of Queen Victoria, who had famously refused to consider legislation banning homosexual acts between women because she was unable to conceive of their possibility. Pointing his camera through upper windows, Halász focused on conditions of mist or light rain creating strong moods and a tangible atmosphere. He also used mirrors to give different viewpoints of the main subjects of his photos. Although this was a relatively common practice in painting during the previous two centuries, he pursued it in his photographs more than any others had before. It is exactly in this area that his work is at its most documentary, even though many of his shots were deliberately posed. Upon reflection, many years later he wrote, “C’est pour saisir la beauté des rues, des jardins, dans la pluie et le brouillard, c’est pour saisir la nuit de Paris que je suis devenu photographe.“ “It is to know the beauty of the streets, the gardens, in rain and fog, it is to know the Paris night that I became a photographer.” Halász captured the enigmatic essence of the Parisian demimonde, publishing his first collection of photographs in a 1933 book entitled Paris de Nuit, Paris by Night, under the single name, “Brassaï”, meaning one who comes from Brașov. The book shocked and captivated the public, becoming a tremendous success, resulting in his being called “the Eye of Paris” in an essay written by his friend Henry Miller in reference to Brassaï’s insatiable curiosity. Brassai also portrayed scenes from the life of the city’s high society, its intellectuals, its ballet, and its grand operas, and he photographed many of his artist friends, including Dalí, Matisse, Giacometti, Braque, Miró, Dubuffet, and Picasso. The latter proved proved to be instrumental in his burgeoning career. Brassaï kept a record of his meetings with Picasso, jotting down the details on scraps of paper, and later, together with the photographs he took during these meetings, forming the basis of his book My Conversations with Picasso, published in 1964. In 1935 Brassaï bought a Rolleiflex, a twin-lens reflex camera producing 12 negatives on each roll of film, and, perhaps more importantly, offering flash synchronisation. With this camera, he took his first pictures for Harper’s Bazaar, featuring portraits of famous celebrities such as the architect Le Corbusier and writer Samuel Beckett, a close neighbor at his home in the 14th arrondissement. Brassaï worked for the Surrealist publication,…
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Lead photo credit : © Photographie Brassaï/ RMN

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Sue Aran lives in the Gers department of southwest France. She is the owner of French Country Adventures, which provides private, personally-guided, small-group food & wine adventures into Gascony, the Pays Basque and Provence. She writes a monthly blog about her life in France and is a contributor to Bonjour Paris and France Today magazines.