(10/55) Brassai - photographer

"The meaning of art is not authenticity...but  the expression of authenticity."|

In 14 years, it will be 200 years since creation of the first recorded photograph. Taken by the French inventor Joseph Nicéphore Niépce. It's an 8 hour exposure recording the shapes of rooftops but little more.

As a successful application of an emerging photo-science it's a triumph. A permanently fixed image of a scene created with the aid of a camera obscura.
But as a photograph, it's safe to say that it's little more than a curiosity. And certainly not in any specific way, a work of art.

“View from the Window at Le Gras” (1826)
(copyright  Joseph Nicéphore Niépce: respective copyright holders)

Nearly 2 decades later, William Henry Fox Talbot produced the first photographic negatives using the calotype process.
Unlike, Niepce (or his rival Louis Daguerre) Fox-Talbot used his process to explore the world around him, in a way that was less 'technical' and more aspirational. And also was more explicitly artistic in terms of his ambitions for the new medium.
He also became one of the first photographers to write about connections between this new science and the world of art in his book The Pencil of Nature 

"The Open Door" (1844)
(copyright  William Henry Fox Talbot: respective copyright holders)

The photograph (above) is a good example. It shows what must have been a posed 'scene'. Although it shows an outdoor scene, with the angle of the sun indicated in the doorway, it's still very much a 'still life'. And probably a deliberately composed scene, given the 'artful' propping of the broom against the outside of the doorway and the relationships between the darkness inside, the shadows of the door and the other objects aligned with the edges of the frame.

His use of photography to at least 'mimic' the effects of painting, were not accidental. Here's a passage from the Pencil of Nature, in which he explicitly references the older art form:

"We have sufficient authority in the Dutch school of art, for taking as subjects of representation scenes of daily and familiar occurrence. A painter’s eye will often be arrested where ordinary people see nothing remarkable. A casual gleam of sunshine, or a shadow thrown across his path, a time-withered oak, or a moss-covered stone may awaken a train of thoughts and feelings, and picturesque imaginings."

For the next 50-60 years, photography continued to skirt with questions of art often indirectly by referencing the works of painters or painterly movements, reaching a self-conscious peak with the work of the photo-secessionist's at the turn of the 20th century.

Among those intent on pursuing a new photo/painterly aesthetic was Edward Steichen.
If you look at the images below, it's quite difficult to see the difference between the painted work (first image) and the photograph (second image) due to the deliberate and painstaking work Steichen has taken, applying photographic emulsion and other chemicals to the surface of specially prepared paper.

The literal blurring between painting & photography undertaken at this time, was a (misguided) attempt to gain credibility for the newer medium by allying it, and to some extent 'clothing it' within the language of painting.

Moonlit Landscape,” (1903) oil on canvas
(copyright Edward Steichen/respective copyright holders)

The Pond-Moonlight (1904) photograph
(copyright Edward Steichen/respective copyright holders)

Steichen may have been one of the first artists to self-consciously blur the lines between photography and the more established arts but others, following afterwards, took a very different path. 

In the context of artist/photographers, the career of George Brassaï -real name Gyula Halász, (1899 — 1984) for example, is especially fascinating.

Born in Brassó in Transylvania,  to an Armenian mother and a Hungarian father, he studied painting and sculpture as a young man in Hungary. Despite his training as an artist, he worked for a number of years as a journalist for Hungarian papers
In 1924, he moved to Paris, taking work (as in Hungary)  as a journalist. Taking the name of his birthplace,  he used the pseudonym "Brassaï," which means "from Brasso".

He appears to have taken to his new life in Paris, and took to exploring the city at night. 
He first used photography as a way to visually 'support' his articles (and also as a way of adding extra income) but seems to have found in photography, a direct way of exploring what he saw and 'felt'.
And what an unusual vision it was.

With the exception perhaps of Steiglitz (see below) who had taken some notable photographs in New York at night, the feel and look of the urban night was still virgin territory as a subject for photography.

(copyright Alfred Steiglitz/respective copyright holders)

(copyright Alfred Steiglitz/respective copyright holders)

Beginning around 1929, Brassai went out into Paris during the nighttime and began a fascinating and unique study of what he saw.

What's interesting is the extent to which the landscape shown is 'different' to other kinds of city photographs.

He takes full account of the limited light sources and especially the mood evoked by the weather to make photographs which are very different in mood, technique and emotional feel to other photographs taken at that time.

You have to look at the work of Bill Brandt to find another photographer with equal control & mastery this type of subject matter.

It's interesting to note in writings on his work methods, that Brassai exercised complete control over the printing of his negatives to get the kind of results he was after. Very much like Brandt, the overall effect and mood in the prints he made are very deliberate and crafted.

There's a great quote attributed to Brassai. 'A negative means nothing for my kind of photographer. It's the artist's print that counts'
The Pont-Neuf c.1932
(copyright Brassai / respective copyright holders)

(copyright Brassai / respective copyright holders)

(copyright Brassai / respective copyright holders)

Boulevards at the Place de l'Opera
(copyright Brassai / respective copyright holders)

(a daytime photograph)
Steps of the Butte Monmartre
with a white dog c.1932-33
(copyright Brassai / respective copyright holders)

 In terms of mood, Brassai was quite expert at photographing & capturing city life. Looking at the photographs of rainy Paris street life (below) it's clear that the the 'poor' light presented by night time Paris & also overcast skies were challenges he readily responded to. The pictures of Paris in the rain are also quite elegant street photography.

Rue de Rivoli, 1937
(copyright Brassai / respective copyright holders)

Walkers in the rain, 1935
(copyright Brassai / respective copyright holders)

But it's not the photographs of Parisian night time or daytime landscapes, that Brassai is most associated with, with modern audiences. It's the photographs he took of people, both in the streets and in clubs, prostitutes rooms and other locations that he is rightly famed with.
While it's fairly obvious human nature that prurient interest in this subject matter has changed little between the 1930's and 2102, his photographs are nonetheless fairly radical statements even today.
For they show an unfiltered view of human life. Life outside 'respectable' social circles over 30 years before Diane Arbus re-invented what it meant to be marginal and made it mainstream art.
But unlike Arbus's' photographs, Brassai is really close to what he sees. So close, it's difficult to divine his presence.

The lighting in the images below is also quite expertly controlled. And the effect is extraordinary, like the lighting in a feature film (rim lighting on the mans hat, backlighting on the woman to seperate her from the background.

He said 'my aim is to create something striking & fresh out of what is ordinary & everyday.'
That part is true, as we can see for ourselves.He succeeds again and again.
But in terms of what we see in the photographs and how we imagine it was taken, what's authentic, or candidly taken, or even 'documentary' - these are much murkier waters.

(copyright Brassai / respective copyright holders)

(copyright Brassai / respective copyright holders)

What is know about Brassai, and also what he made known, is that the equipment he used for his nighttime photography on and off the streets, was bulky and obtrusive, including the use of a tripod and magnesium powder flash as a light source.

What is also known is that for a variety of reasons (including legal concerns - as these were published in contemporary magazines) Brassai often used a helper known as 'Kiss' to play the role of a John (prostitute's client) in some of his most infamous and notorious  images.

While we can still experience the images, as fresh and artful and slightly, wonderfully wicked, we should remember that a man, a tripod, a big camera, a blinding flash of magnesium powder (and also sometimes a visible accomplice) were also a part of the scene we are looking at.

At Suzy's c.1932 (and sequence below)
(copyright Brassai / respective copyright holders)

(copyright Brassai / respective copyright holders)

Streetwalker near the Place d'Italie 1932
(copyright Brassai / respective copyright holders)

Another facet of this work, perhaps less celebrated is his depiction of gay lifestyles in the context of the nightclubs and entertainment establishments he regularly photographed.

The photographer Lisette Model, born 2 years later than Brassai, had no qualms about associating in her words 'freaks' with 'homosexuals, lesbians, cripples, sick people, dying people & dead people.' 

 Brassai's photographs don't use tricks to tell us how we should 'feel' about the gay couples he photographs. He's not moralising. Just very matter of fact, (but also perhaps slightly tender) about the life's & culture of the people inhabiting this sector of Parisian life.

(copyright Brassai / respective copyright holders)

(copyright Brassai / respective copyright holders)

Fat Claude & her girlfriend at le Monocle c.1932
(copyright Brassai / respective copyright holders)

What's quite special about these photographs of small intimate spaces in the clubs Brassai is visiting, is how relaxed everyone appears. It's not small feat to park yourself in front of other people enjoying themselves, while setting up a tripod in cramped spaces and a large powder flashgun and still conjure up such candid 'feeling'.

By the way did you notice the man in the famous photograph (below) entitled "Lovers in a small cafe near the Place d'Italie"? Look familiar? Have another look at the photograph (above) of the man shown in 'At Suzy's'.

Brassaï's photographs of Paris were published in 1933 as Paris de nuit (Paris by Night.) and later as The Secret Paris.

Kiki at the Cabaret des Fleurs,Montparnasse c.1932
(copyright Brassai / respective copyright holders)

Lovers in a small cafe near the
Place d'Italie c.1932
(copyright Brassai / respective copyright holders)
Bal Musette des Quatre-Saisons,
Rue de Lappe c.1932
(copyright Brassai / respective copyright holders)

Brassai is particularly good at photographing people 'in context' - whether showing people, tables & nightclubs or as below showing particular states of behaviour, juxtaposed against a background to present an ironic counterpoint.

The Kiss c. 1935-37
(copyright Brassai / respective copyright holders)

Tramp, Marseilles 1935
(copyright Brassai / respective copyright holders)

Marlene 1937
(copyright Brassai / respective copyright holders)

Brassai is often associated in critical articles, with the surrealist movement, but as with so much of Brassai's work, appearances are decieving. 
Approximately 150 photographs by Brassai were published in 12 issues of Andre Breton's 'Minotaure' magazine between 1933 and1939.

Apart from being a regular client, the opportunity to photograph a much wider range of material, including photographs of the nude human form would certainly have been appealing.

However his dislike of 'artiness' or art poseurs was unambigious. He clearly disliked the outward manifestations of 'the artistic hordes with all the ostentatious attributes of genius....one takes a thorough dislike to anything that might imply membership of that tribe' 

Some of the photographs published in Minotaure are below and show a more abstract, treatment of objects and the human form. His photographs of nudes are particularily fascinating and make an interesting comparison with those taken by Bill Brandt

The Phenomenon of Ectasy c.1933
(and below)
(copyright Brassai / respective copyright holders)

Matches c.1930
(copyright Brassai / respective copyright holders)

 Nude 1934
(copyright Brassai / respective copyright holders)

 Brassai was 'also' an artist in more tradtional media it should be remembered, and like most artists who work in photography, found it difficult to reconcile his interest and ability in photography with his work in more established art forms.
It also meant that 'traditional' art circles then (and now) have tended to marginilize or denigrate his work in painting, drawing, printmaking and sculpture.

There's certainly more than enough evidence to support the view that Brassai's work on the nude form, was every bit as revolutionary and radical and modern as those by Henry Moore or Constantin Brancusi or even Brassai's friend Picasso

Nude, Paris, September 1944
(copyright Brassai / respective copyright holders)

Nusde, Paris, 1 January 1944`
(copyright Brassai / respective copyright holders)

Squatting Woman
(copyright Brassai / respective copyright holders)

Black Bird II, 1960
(copyright Brassai / respective copyright holders)

Woman of Seville Stripped Bare, c.1934/1967 
(copyright Brassai / respective copyright holders)

 But the story of Brassai and photography vs art gets even more fascinating. In addition to his use of traditional media, Brassai also created a series called Transmutations

In 1932, Brassa left a small blank photographic plate behind in a studio to which his friend Picasso also had access. Picasso took it and etched a portrait of a woman on it. Brassai took notice and later wrote to Picasso: 'It was you who aroused the demon of drawing in me'
Subsequently, both artists experimented with the glass plate technique, but in different ways.
The work of printing photographic proofs from a painted glass plate (used by Picasso) or from an engraved photographic plate (used by Brassai) combined the potential of photography, engraving and drawing.

In 1934-35, Brassai made over 150 etchings from about thirty negatives of 'nudes' dating from 1931-1935. The hybrid photograph/etchings are intriguing. Sometimes all trace of the photographic surface is removed. Sometimes just a few telling details. Often just enough to reveal
a thigh, a face or other body part.

Brassai published twelve shots in 1967 from his body of work (dating back to 1934-1935) under the title  Transmutations
(copyright Brassai / respective copyright holders)

(copyright Brassai / respective copyright holders)

(copyright Brassai / respective copyright holders)

Brassai, created another body of work, perhaps just as interesting, as those made earlier in his career.
A major series of photographs of graffiti taken over a 30 year period.
As subject matter, few photographers then (and now) have managed to make satisfying photographs of these mostly urban phenomena. Helen Levitt and Aaron Siskind are probably the only photographers who created comparable bodies of work.

 (copyright: Helen Levitt/ respective copyright holder)

 (copyright: Helen Levitt/ respective copyright holder)

  (copyright: Aaron Siskind/ respective copyright holder)

   (copyright: Aaron Siskind/ respective copyright holder)

Grafitti, so regarded as offensive form of visual abusive, can also, in the hands of a skilled photographer, be a kind of high wire act, where the photographers need for personal expression struggles against the authentic expression of furtive amateurs.

Let's face it, most graffitti is written in the dark or furtively, quickly while no one's watching. It's an illegitimate, illegal, very personal form of expression that has only very recently become respectable as high art. The images produced by Banksy are a good example of graffiti as popular art, combining often serious messages with a deceptively light and humoruous visual approach.

 copyright: Banksy

  copyright: Banksy

But generally grafitti is not high art. And it's often difficult to divine art from unskilled craft or simple vandalism. 

For Brassai, grafitti was a complete world of expression to which he attached great philosophical importance:

 'The world of grafitti sums up (for me) the whole of life; birth, love & death. birth; the image of man, spelt out and identified for the first time, love in both its aspects; carnal and sentimental; death; decomposirion, annihilation and adventure. animism is omnipresent, conjuring up not only warriors, heroes and animals but also devils, sorcerers, fairies, phallic deities, monsters.'

Personally  I don't ascribe to the wide range of meanings Brassai evidently attributed to these photographs. But that's not to say they're not rich in metaphor, allegory or irony.
Go to the locations in any major city where grafitti has run amuck, and you'll certainly bound to see crude messages about sex and death and maybe nuances of emotion too. But probably not so artful as the images Brassai saw.

What's striking about his photos, is often how sculptutral the images appear. How the lines are literally carved out of the surrounding surface and how this makes us feel as viewers.
The images may be crude. But are they crude expressions or something more? 

One's viewpoint is inevitably coloured by personal experience but I find them fascinating and quite radical as images in no small part due to Brassai's skills as an interperator of what he saw but also his skills as a craftsman, which harnessed together (for me) produced his last great body of work.

NOTE: Unfortunately, the last book on Brassai's Graffitii photography (below) is currently out of print.

(copyright Brassai / respective copyright holders)

(copyright Brassai / respective copyright holders)

(copyright Brassai / respective copyright holders)

(copyright Brassai / respective copyright holders)

(copyright Brassai / respective copyright holders)

(copyright Brassai / respective copyright holders)

(copyright Brassai / respective copyright holders)

(copyright Brassai / respective copyright holders)

From the series VII: Death 1933-56
(copyright Brassai / respective copyright holders)

From the series VI: Love 1933-1956
(copyright Brassai / respective copyright holders)

From the series VIII: Magic, 1933-1956
(copyright Brassai / respective copyright holders)

Red Manifesto, 1958-1970
(copyright Brassai / respective copyright holders)

All photographs are copyright their respective original copyright owners.
Original text copyright Nick Lloyd 2012.
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Anonymous said...

I bookmarked your page on Raymond Moore with the intention of giving it a close look, and, several months later, I finally did.

There are few pages on the web devoted to Moore, so I really appreciate the time and effort you put into making the photos and accompanying commentary about Moore available.

Thanks, as well, for your post on Brassai. The sampling of images and your focused comments make for a revealing moment of discourse.

Nick_L said...

Hi Daniel,
thanks for the kind words. And glad you liked the Moore piece & also Brassai.I'll be writing at length on Ray Moore next year when I get further down my list of 55 photographers.
So sad I never got to actually meet Ray. But I did get to meet Paul Caponigro, whose work also looks beyond surfaces to something 'felt'.