“Night does not show things, it suggests them. It disturbs and surprises us with its strangeness. It liberates forces within us which are dominated by our reason during the daytime.” ―Brassai

Becoming Brassaï

Gyula Halász was born in Brassó, Transylvania known now as Romania. He was 15 when World War I began. His family moved to Budapest where Gyula graduated from school. He joined the Austro-Hungarian cavalry but did not serve due to an injury. After finishing his service with the military, he studied sculpture and painting at the Hungarian Academy of Fine Arts.

Gyula became part of the avant-garde movement in Budapest. He fled Budapest in 1918 to resettle in Berlin where he worked as a journalist for Hungarian newspapers ‘Keleti” and “Napkelet” as he continued his fine art studies.

He moved to Paris in 1924 and continued his journalism work by writing interviews and articles which he would illustrate with drawings and photographs he got from shops and booksellers along the River Seine. In 1925 he met André Kertész, an accomplished photographer, who worked with Gyula on several articles. Kertész taught his collaborator night photography.

Gyula began making his own photos for his articles in 1926. He used pseudonyms for his articles and paintings. For his photographs, he signed them Brassaï, a derivation of his hometown’s name.

Brassaï On Photography
Brassaï on the boulevard Saint Jacques

Brassaï and “Paris by Night”

Gyula met then modeled his work after renowned Paris street photographer Eugène Atget. His love for Paris and his French manners made him welcome in high society circles after an introduction by his lover, Madame Delaunay-Bellville. He mingled with the Montparnasse pimps and prostitutes while still having a foot in the aristocracy in the mode of Josephine Baker.

He showed 100 prints to Carlo Rim (editor) and Lucien Vogel (publisher) of the magazine VU. Vogel was a member of the editorial board of the esteemed monthly Arts et Métiers graphiques. He suggested that Gyula show a selection of 20 prints to its publisher, Charles Peignot. A contract resulted for the book “Paris by Night” and Gyula Halász became forever known as Brassaï.

Brassaï and the lights of Paris

Now 33, Brassaï’s photographs became associated with the criminal underworld, the circuses, the brothels and most of all the lights of the city. His success led him to contracts for other books, portrait commissions, and an art critic, E.Téraide invited him to photograph Pablo Picasso’s studio outside of Paris. The work appeared in the magazine Minotaure. His association with the magazine had him meeting artist and photographer Man Ray and surrealists Salvador Dali, André Breton and Paul Eluard.

Brassaï created a sequel to “Paris by Night” called “Voluptés de Paris (Pleasures of Paris.)” Its photographs portrayed urban meeting places — Casino de Paris, Kiki d Montparnasse and others along with gay balls and street prostitutes. The supporting text provided by the publisher drew attention to the unseemly and salacious nature of the images. Brassaï was disgusted and disowned the book. He would, going forward, insist on controlling all of the production areas of his future books.

Brassaï, street and art photographer

He continued to work both as a street and an art photographer. He found himself drawn to photograph high society. His images were published in monthly culture and arts magazines like Coronet and Liliput. In 1935 his work appeared in Harper’s Bazaar. By 1937, Brassaï decided to leave the magazine Coiffure de Paris to work on his painting and sculpting.

In 1940, Germany invaded France. With the exception of a brief time in the south of France, Brassaï spent the war in Paris. A secret commission from his friend Picasso to photograph his sculptures for a planned book, helped him survive the occupation. During this time he made several portraits of Picasso.

Picasso’s advice for Brassaï

Although Brassaï continued to draw and sculpt, he also spent a lot of time on his photography. Picasso encouraged him to pursue his drawing by saying “You own a gold mine, and you’re exploiting a salt mine.” Picasso organized a showing of Brassaï’s drawings and the Galerie Renou & Colle. It was 1945. A year later those drawings were published along with poetry written by Jacques Prévat in “Trente dessins (Thirty drawings.)”

Brassaï, a Leica and America

After spending years writing and drawing and producing photo books of his work, it was the late 50s. Brassaï bought a Leica camera and color film. He was invited to the United States by Holiday magazine. He traveled to New York, Chicago and Louisiana. He summarized his relationship with the country by saying, “I’m the opposite of Christopher Columbus … this time it’s America who has just discovered me.”

Brassaï and his early work

Brassaï had rediscovered his early photography. He made new prints and editions of his books. He had photographed graffiti for 30 years. The prints were formed into a book and published in a 1961 book titled “Graffiti.” The photos captured Paris in a magical, fanciful and symbolic way. Another book, “Conversations with Picasso” in 1964 earned this praise from Picasso, “If you really want to know me read this book.”

Brassaï stopped making photographs in 1962, maybe due to the death of Harper’s Bazaar New York editor Carmel Snow that year.

The legacy of Brassaï

Brassaï was one of the two most important European photographers in the 1930s, the other being Henri Cartier-Bresson. John Szarkowski, former director of the Museum of Modern Art summed up Brassaï’s work by saying, “the classical and measured” Brassaï captured “the spirit of the bizarre.”

Brassaï’s photographs of those in the Parisian underworld inspired future photographers such as Diane Arbus and Nan Goldin and their images of people on society’s fringes.

“His urban landscapes continue to define the romantic ideal of Paris as the bohemian metropolis.” was one of the concluding lines of Brassaï’s bio on The Art Story.

Brassaï died in Beaulieu-sur-Mer Alpes-Maritimes in the south of France. He was 84.

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