Brassaï and his night scenes of Paris

text: Taka Kawachi

2019.10.23

Brassaï is a Hungarian photographer famous for his photographs of Paris by night. His images and their decadent, mysterious atmosphere bring to mind the cabarets of Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec’s fin-de-siècle paintings or the “Années folles” era when Paris was home to people like Josephine “Black Venus” Baker.

I learned Brassaï thanks to the 1981 album “Pirates” by American singer-songwriter Ricky Lee Jones. The photo on the cover showed two lovers locking eyes in the dark of the night; the image and the white of the couple’s breath were a brilliant match for the album’s intimate and languid vocal. Fascinated, I searched the album credit’s for the name of the photographer capable of taking such a photo, and that became my first encounter with the name “Brassaï.”

Born in Hungary in the last year of the 19th century, Brassaï studied painting and sculpture and initially had little interest in photography. Working as a journalist in Paris, he learned the mechanics of the camera and the basic rules of photography from André Kertész, a fellow Hungarian who had moved to Paris a while before him and could illustrate his articles with his own photographs.
What Brassaï truly wanted to capture, however, was the fascinating world that unfolded in the cafes of Paris night after night. He adopted a fake name (“Brassaï” is a pseudonym), likely to protect himself and his reputation, and photographed Paris’ hidden underbelly of prostitutes, pimps and transvestites.

Brassaï (*1899 in Brassó, Hungary; †1984 near Nice, France). Born Gyula Halász (the name “Brassaï” is a pseudonym meaning “man from Brassó”). After studying sculpture and painting in Budapest and serving in the Austro-Hungarian army, Brassaï moved to Paris in 1924 and began working as a journalist. He frequented cafes where Paris’ intellectuals and artists gathered, captured them in portraits and rose to fame after publishing his photographs in the book “Paris de Nuit” (Paris by Night). A man of countless talents, Brassaï also engaged in sculpture, painting and filmmaking and was a successful poet and writer. He was closely acquainted with artists such as Picasso, Matisse and Giacometti, and became friends with Taro Okamoto during Okamoto's stay in Paris as a student. Brassaï’s photographs fascinate us for their apparent in-artifice, their appearing natural despite the large-format camera that his models were facing. Brassaï’s photographs were “manufactured images” which captured an ephemeral nightly Paris, created through a careful approach that often included preparing the scenes and his subjects before the shoot began. Couple in a Café, near the place d’Italie, c.1932 © Estate Brassaï Succession, Paris Photo © Centre Pompidou, MNAM-CCI, Dist. RMN-Grand Palais / Jacques Faujour / distributed by AMF © Estate Brassaï - RMN-Grand Palais

It is easy to imagine the technical difficulties that Brassaï had to face when photographing in the darkness of Paris’ cabarets and alleys at night. He took his pictures with small plate camera mounted on a tripod, and fired a magnesium flash to light his scenes. Brassaï’s photography is the result of many brilliant techniques and hidden tricks, one of which—called the “set-up”—had Brassaï decide the photograph in advance, then carefully prepare the location and his gear before instructing his subjects to take poses that would look natural in the final images.

He published these photographs in 1932 in his first photo book called “Paris de Nuit” (Paris by Night), its cover adorned by a moody photograph of a rain-wet cobblestone street glistening in the night. The people in his photographs, captured with artificial light on street corners and in cafes, possess an almost shocking sense of presence. In spite of the difficult conditions he was facing, Brassaï managed to create photographs that immediately fascinate us with their subjects and locations—a feat he achieved not only thanks to his technical prowess but also his personal charm that helped lower the guard of his models.
It is no surprise to me that Brassaï, who pioneered numerous techniques and methods to capture his natural-looking photographs, has become the subject of favorable critical attention again.

Taka Kawachi

Benrido, Overseas Division Director

Taka Kawachi has extensive international experience, having graduated from the Academy of Art University of San Francisco, to then working in New York City as a book editor and curator for 15 years. Returning to Japan in 2011, he held the position of Director for the Amana Photo Collection, overseeing the development of the company’s acquisitions of more than 550 Japanese photographic works in four years. In 2016, Kawachi published his first book “Art no Iriguchi (Entrance to the Arts, on American Art) ” followed by his second publication on European Art released in the fall of the same year. His publications illustrate his experiences of art and photography, and offer readers an opportunity to engage with the history and subjects of both regions from his unique point of view. He is currently the Director of the Overseas Division of Kyoto’s Benrido, working to disseminate the classic and rare photographic process of Collotype, and produced portfolios of Saul Leiter and J.H. Lartigue, etc. His latest publication is “Artists: Masters of Architecture and Design” (Akatsuki Press).

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