Hungarian-born, French Photographer, Draftsman, Sculptor, Writer, and Filmmaker
Brassó, Transylvania, Austria-Hungary
Progression of Art
Enlarged Objects: Matches
This close-shot of five wooden matches set against a printed text was intended to illustrate a story in issue 10 of Paris Magazine, published in June 1932. It was the first photograph Brassaï contributed to the magazine and was unlike the many others he contributed which typically captured some form of social or moral transgression. In this image, there seems to be an implicit play between object and text, as they are both cropped and juxtaposed to entice the viewer to look and speculate on the potential for the image's meaning(s). This "uprooted photograph," as photo-historian Peter Galassi named it, becomes something of a mystery, or suggests, unintended meanings that amused the readers of the popular press as well as the Surrealists who tried to take ownership of this curious type of imagery.
The Surrealists valued the way the enlarged detail or close-up subverted modern objectivity and its 'straight' presentation of the object. The more specific or detailed the familiar object, the more its potential to transform into something unfamiliar and ethereal: a brand-new object to behold perhaps. This ambiguous quality characterized vernacular photography at the time and the illustrated press produced it with regularity with the hope of engaging its readers. Brassaï, attuned to the intellectual appeal of images, was adept at producing pictures that might amuse and rouse the readers of such publications. But Matches not only fitted within the realms of Surrealism, it belonged also to the New Vision movement in photography which was associated also with Bauhaus aesthetics: close-ups, abruptly cropped and framed at high and low angles. During the early 1930s, Brassaï took a series of extreme close-up shots like this with the new Voigtlander Bergheil camera with a macro lens.
Gelatin Silver Print - Brassaï Archive
The stream snaking down the empty street
Brassaï was, in the words of photo-historian Christian Bouqueret, the photographer "of a new world," that being, a world "where night is no longer night and where light brutally and loudly bursts forth [...] making things visible where before there was only speculation." In this picture, Brassaï was fascinated by the way electric light shone on the street pavement revealing the undulating pattern of cobblestones that both defined the gutter and guided the stream of sewer water down the deserted street. He allowed the indirect lighting on the pavement to soften the effect of the bright streetlights.
Inspired by Kertész, Brassaï wanted to photograph the city at night with systematic discipline and with poetry. Kertész took his photographs of the Seine at night using a half-hour exposure. Brassaï chose a larger-format Voigtländer camera with the aim of using a longer exposure time too, though this approach required a more calculated and thoughtful use of the camera and a special handling of lighting. Caught in the transition from gaslight to electric light; from the Belle Époque to the modern age, nighttime Paris became Brassaï's main subject for six years. He photographed the city's historical churches and monuments, its parks and cemeteries, from north to south, from both sides of the Seine, and from multiple perspectives in all seasons and weather, but his nighttime photographs of outdoor locations only rarely included human figures.
Photogravure - Musée d'Art Moderne, Centre Pompidou, Paris
The cyclist (a delivery boy) has stopped to admire an enlarged headshot of the iconic German film star Marlene Dietrich which adorns the side of a building. Brassaï's street photography was usually precise and descriptive of how people moved about and interacted with the Parisian cityscape. As Brassaï eloquently explained: he had "always sought to immobilize movement, to freeze it in physical form, to give people and things that grandiose immobility of which only cataclysms and death are capable." Unlike, say, Walker Evans or Berenice Abbott, Brassaï did not however treat everyday signage - shop signs, cheap cafés, and advertisements and so on - as meaningful vernacular objects. Rather, he was fascinated by Paris per se: but in its mundane details (e.g. the pavement, street lamps), found objects (e.g. metro tickets) and in the behavior of the different social classes. In the words of Brassaï's friend, Henry Miller, "the walls, the griffonages, the human body, the amazing interiors, all these separate and interrelated elements of the city form in their ensemble a gigantic labyrinthian excavation." As rich in poetic images as Paris was, Brassaï's focus on everyday scenes also fulfilled the more practical demands of meeting commissions for the illustrated press.
Gelatin Silver Print
Couple hommes au bal "Magic-City", Paris
Identity appears enigmatic in this photograph of an elegant upper middle-class couple dancing together. On close inspection, we notice that the woman is in fact a man dressed as a lady: wearing satin gown, long gloves, a neck ruff, a hat, and a veil. Her male partner wears tails, replete with a bow tie and a white handkerchief in his breast pocket. They are crowded-in by other dancing couples who compete for space on the dance floor but they are clearly enjoying the occasion. This photograph was included among the 46 photographs published in the book Voluptés de Paris (Pleasures of Paris), the same book Brassaï disowned on publication because of the inclusion of lurid picture descriptions.
Seen on its own terms, Brassaï's picture captures the warm and delightful atmosphere of "drag balls" that had become popular among the Parisian gay scene in the 1920s. This image is part of a series that Brassaï took of the transvestite soirées called Bals des Invertis, held every year during Carnival on Shrove Tuesday (Mardi Gras) and Mid-Lent (Mi-Carêm), between 1922 to 1939. The soirées took place at Magic-City Dancing, a huge dance-hall on the Rue de l'Universite, near the Eiffel Tower (built initially as an extension to the Universal Exhibition of 1900). Brassaï described this important social gathering as follows: "The cream of Parisian inverts was to meet there, without distinction as to class, race or age. And every type came, faggots (sic), cruisers, chickens, old queens, famous antique dealers and young butcher boys, hairdressers and elevator boys, well-known dress designers and drag queens." Not long after the war, the Magic City ballroom was turned into a studio for France's state-owned television network.
Gelatin Silver Print - Victoria and Albert Museum, London
Brassaï transforms the female nude body into geometrical lines, curves and shapes, suggestive of its corporeality. He focused on the woman's torso twisted at an angle to reveal the outline of her hip, waist, and breast. The woman's head and legs are cropped, and the twisted angle of her torso makes her body seem like a floating organic form. Brassaï has further abstracted her body as he has cut out this image and placed it on a neutral ground (textile) to underscore the sensation of floating in a reverie of desire. Nude was accompanied by Maurice Raynal's essay on the "Diversity of the human body" published in the first issue of the Surrealist magazine Minotaure in 1933 though Brassaï considered the surreal aspect of his images as nothing more than "the real rendered fantastic by vision."
Brassaï contributed about 150 nude photographs to the magazine over a decade. The female nude may have been a subject he dealt with extensively in his drawings and sculptures, but his headless nudes held special appeal for the Surrealists. "Without heads or with reduced heads," as the art historian Sidra Stich observed, "the figures no longer offer evidence of their superior human status." Brassaï collaborated with different Surrealist authors, including Salvador Dali and André Breton, providing photographs for their articles (for Minotaure). Nevertheless, Brassaï, whose metaphors tended to be more rational and visually based than those of the Surrealists, kept a certain distance from the movement.
Gelatin Silver Print - Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York
Madam Bijoux in the Bar de la Lune, Montmartre, Paris
Here Brassaï presents Madam Bijoux, well known in the Parisian demi-monde as a glamorous and flamboyant elderly woman. She looks straight into the camera, engaging the gaze of the photographer, and she is dressed-to-the-nines in her worn out clothes and jewels. She sits with a half-lit cigarette in her hands and a glass of wine on the table in front of her at the nightclub Bar de la Lune in Montmartre. She exudes a fallen social status. In Brassaï's own kind words: "Behind her glittering eyes, still seductive, lit with the lights of the Belle Époque, as if they had escaped the onslaughts of age, the ghost of a pretty girl seemed to smile out."
Brassaï portrayed Madam Bijoux several times and some of her portraits appear in his book Paris by Night. She even inspired the creation of the main character in the French play The Madwoman of Chaillot in 1945. For these interior portraits Brassaï used innovative artificial lighting techniques. His assistant would prepare a flash powder gun and a reflecting screen, which allowed Brassaï to create a softer illumination than the harsh glare produced by a flash bulb. This innovation might have allowed Brassaï to produce a more intricate effect, but the bright powder explosions compelled his friend Picasso to give him the nickname "the Terrorist."
Gelatin Silver Print - Estate Brassaï Succession, Paris
Picasso by the Stove, rue des Grands Augustins, Paris
The legendary Spanish painter Pablo Picasso sits smoking in a chair next to a large stove that casts its enormous shadow behind him, accentuating his presence. Brassaï took this photograph in the stable that Picasso used as his Paris studio during World War II. Brassaï explained, "I wanted to photograph him in his new studio, which he was not yet living in, and in the cafés of Saint-Germain-des-Près, where he had been a regular for five years... I also took some of him seated next to the enormous potbelly stove with its long flue pipe, bought from a collector.... He is delighted by the portrait of him with his extraordinary stove, a portrait that later appeared in Life [magazine]"
The collection he produced of, and for, Picasso in 1943 was the photographer's main income at the time. Yet, the friendship between the two artists stems from 1932, when Brassaï photographed some of Picasso's sculptures for Minotaure. Having a reputation for being particularly fussy over the recording of his work, Picasso, who had also experimented with photography by this time, fully approved of Brassaï's photographs. Brassaï positioned Picasso's work in unexpected camera angles illuminating them dramatically by only one single strong light source (an oil lamp) hidden behind a watering can.
Gelatin Silver Print - Estate Brassaï Succession, Paris
Love from Graffiti Series VI
This hand-carved heart engraved with the initials L-A was found by Brassaï on a concrete wall in a working-class district of Paris. It captured Brassaï's imagination and he considered graffiti the contemporary city's "primitive art." The image records for posterity an indelible mark of loving affection, but more telling perhaps is Brassaï's comparison between, in the words of curator Anne Wilkes Tucker, "the caveman's painted bison, studded with arrows, to the initialed hearts ravaged by fury [which are] both initiated by the desire for magical powers". Brassaï's intentional framing of the image transformed the randomly arranged lines on a wall into symbols for animistic narratives.
Brassaï began his graffiti series in the early thirties, preferring carved to painted wall markings. His first photographs of graffiti were published in Minotaure in 1933. Brassaï worked on the series for thirty years and eventually published a photo book on graffiti in 1961. This print belongs to the category he named Love where simple visual markings widely associated with expressions of love, such as hearts and sunrays, are framed as representations of emotions that are almost impossible to represent. Brassaï divided all the photographs in the series into nine categories, with titles such as "The Birth of the Face," "Masks and Faces," "Death," "Magic," and "Primitive Images," directing the viewer towards specific readings. He moved from his human subjects to inanimate, often abstract, wall markings to capture the essence of the city in a symbolic and mystical way.
Gelatin Silver Print - Victoria and Albert Museum, London