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The Piercing Brassai Photography and Success Story of a Master French Photographer

08.09.2021
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Piercing Brassai Photography

“Every creative person has two birthdays. The second date, when he understands his true vocation, is much more important than the first,” this terrific phrase belongs to the photographer, one of the founders of the street photography genre, sculptor, and artist Brassai. That’s who we’re going to talk about today.

Brassai Biography

The Franco-Hungarian photographer and artist George Brassai is one of the brightest representatives of “urban” documentary photography, who had a great influence on reportage photography of the twentieth century. Born in southeastern Transylvania, Gyula Halasz (that was the photographer’s real name) was one of the first to address the subject of nightlife in the metropolis. He skillfully used streetlights, illuminated café windows, and car headlights as sources of dramatic photographic effects.

Despite his rich and varied archive, which included portraits of world-famous artists, writers, and celebrities, the author became famous primarily for photographs taken in the alleys and squares of Paris. The Brassai photography style reflected the “underside” of the lives of homeless people, street fortune-tellers and pickpockets, brothel workers, and bistro-goers with the shot glass in their hands. He showed the life of the “urban bottom,” but presented the pictures not as an edification, but as a somewhat romanticized frozen image. He skillfully captured true emotions and was thought-provoking.

Brassaï’s contribution to photography is similar to Henri Toulouse-Lautrec’s influence on painting. The photographer cited the extraordinary artist as one of his main sources of inspiration. Like Toulouse-Lautrec, Brassai has always imbued his portraits of ambiguous models with a touch of humanity. His love of the city at night, which is reflected in his most famous works, also helps today’s viewers to experience the beauty of the Parisian streets. They are always wrapped in fog, the shaky charm of burning storefronts and parks in the rain.

Features of Brassai’s Style

Portraits

Brassai’s style is above all psychological portraiture and the conveyance of emotion in the photograph.

Brassaï was a multi-talented artist — he drew, sculpted, wrote prose, and even directed. He was awarded one of the prizes of the Festival de Cannes in 1955 for his film, but among his contemporaries and descendants, Brassai is famous for his psychological portraits.

Brassai made no particular distinction between posing people, taking equally talented pictures of Pablo Picasso, Matisse, important political figures, or prostitutes waiting for clients in a café.

Cityscapes

Cityscapes

In addition to canonical photographs of famous (and unknown) people, the author is famous for Brassai photos of the city. Brassai pictures of cats, which he loved, flowers in gardens, graffiti, and drawings on the walls of factories, houses, and public toilets. Even stones in his lens became unusual and interesting objects.

The contribution to the art of nighttime street Brassai photography is very significant. Brassai’s colleagues and contemporaries preferred to work during the day or at dawn. The Hungarian photographer, on the other hand, has managed to discover the potential of artificial street lighting. The Brassai lighted picture of car headlights penetrating through the damp Parisian fog, gas lamps on the bridge, helped him to create photographic pictures reminiscent of illustrations to the novels of Remarque.

To make original and innovative photographs, Brassai had to develop his own methods of taking pictures at night. He placed the camera under trees and in the shade of rooftops, protecting it from direct light, changing photographic plates under a black hoodie with special sleeves, which he designed himself. Not only the photographer suffered because of the unsafe magnesium flash, but also the clothes of his models, among whom were not only “real” residents of Paris, but also friends of the photographer posing for him on purpose.

The Creative Journey of the Artist

Photographer Brassai has often been accused of staging his photographs, but this artificiality was rather due to necessity. Shooting in semi-darkness in the 1920s and 1940s required a shutter speed of up to ten minutes, and the photographer had to ask the models to pose for him (lying in bed, for example) and pay for this immobility.

No one would allow Brassai to photograph real brothel-goers, and he enlisted friends and assistants who played the role of clients or visitors to sexual minority cafés. There were true members of the “unprotected social classes” among the models, and the photographer often faced danger in his work. He was repeatedly robbed on the street and had his pockets picked, but more often than not Brassai managed to negotiate and catch an unexpected shot.

In most of his photographs, the models posed alone. Brassai hardly ever did group shots, but he was able to bring out the personality of the person in all its depth. Other talented artists loved him for this — especially Picasso and Dali, whom he photographed for decades on end. The photographer, born in the small town of Brasso in Austria-Hungary (from which the author’s pseudonym comes), was good at both revealing the psychology of famous painters and shooting couples kissing in the street.

Artistic Education as the Foundation of Style

Artistic Education as the Foundation of Style

Much of the Brassai photography style is due to his classical painting education. Born in 1899 into a Hungarian-Armenian family, he studied at the Art Academy in Budapest and then at the Berlin academic school. After returning from the army, he painted nude paintings, portraits, and engaged in drawing and sculpture.

After his move to Berlin in 1920, the would-be photographer began to work as a newspaper journalist and to communicate a great deal with artists and writers from the so-called Hungarian circle. Many of them emigrated to Paris in the mid-20s, as did Brassai himself. The painter and journalist, who at that time had not yet considered a career as a photographer, left for the French capital in 1924. He took a pseudonym to replace his difficult to pronounce the name and settled in Montparnasse. As a child, after living for a year in Paris (where his father taught at the Sorbonne) and reading Proust’s books, he learned French.

Brassai was in close contact with writers including Henry Miller and Jacques Prévert, and was friends with Hungarian famous night photographers. André Kertész advised him to illustrate his notes with photographs himself to save the cost of a photographer. Thus, artists began to photograph exhibitions, sports competitions, and cityscapes, which brought him fame.

Success and Difficulties

Released in 1932, the photo album Brassai paris by night made the author famous. In search of subjects for it, the photographer visited bars, got acquainted with a motley crowd, which he photographed, including “for himself”. From the same time, he began a long collaboration with Brassai Picasso, for whom he created almost a biography in photos, and Salvador Dalí, who considered the photographer a genius. The successful young Hungarian with an imposing appearance was actively invited to the higher circles, he photographed intellectuals, ballet dancers and prominent writers. Along with his “status” work for social life and Harper’s Bazaar, the artist has been published in avant-garde magazines and founded the Rapho agency in Paris together with C. Rado.

Another world war forced the photographer to stop his activity for a while. Restrictions were imposed on his photography. Brassai remained a Romanian citizen and could have been taken to the front. Returning to Paris after his departure, he was forced to live with false papers, as many emigrants at the time. He did not become a French citizen until 1949 when he married a French woman half his age.

The Photographer’s Life Achievements

The Photographer’s Life Achievements

After the war, Brassai was already an internationally known photographer, traveling extensively on assignments for Harper’s Bazaar. The first personal exhibition at New York’s MOMA with Brassai self-portrait was held in 1948, and the year before that he had made the famous photo decorations for a ballet libretto by J. Prévert. In the 1950s, however,he began to move away from the art of photography, shooting only people and landscapes of interest to him. He was awarded the Ordre des Arts et des Lettres, the Grand Prix de la Photographie de Paris and the Chevalier de la Légion d’Honneur for his work in the 70s.

Brassai’s Creative Legacy Today

After Brassai’s death in 1984, the Pompidou Center received from the photographer’s widow most of his archive (she auctioned off her best works in the mid-2000s, however). Today large-scale exhibitions of Brassai’s photographs can be visited in Paris, Moscow and many other cities around the world. His work has never diminished in interest, and viewers can now discover his masterpieces that are among the classics of twentieth-century documentary Brassai night photography.

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