This is a homage to another important street and social photographer who captured the essence of the life in Paris. As a multi-faceted and versatile artist, he was involved in street photography, urban details, and experiments in pictorialism. In this article, I pay tribute to this great artist and one of his most important books: “Graffiti.” Read more after the jump!
Brassaï was the pseudonym of the Hungarian photographer Gyula Halász. He was born in Bràzov in 1899, which was at the time part of Hungary (now it’s a Romanian town). When he was only three years old, his family went to Paris, where his father was a professor of French literature at the Sorbonne University. for a whole year. Then they returned to Hungary, where he studied painting and sculpture at the Hungarian Academy of Fine Arts. After a break due to the World War I, he went to Berlin where he worked as a journalist, continuing his studies at the Berlin-Charlottenburg Academy. In 1924 he moved permanently to Paris. There, he learned the French language, read Proust and Prévert, and became a great friend of Henry Miller.
Once he had taken confidence in Paris, his photographic attention towards the city became absolute. He takes photos of his beloved Paris at night or in the rain, in the villas, the gardens, at the banks of the Seine and in the timeless streets of the old quarters. He adopted the pseudonym of Brassaï in memory of his native land (“Braşov” — Brasso in Hungarian). In 1933, he published his first book of photographs entitled “Paris de Nuit”, which was a great success, especially in the artistic circles. Henry Miller called him “The Eye of Paris.”
He took many photos of the Secret Paris: the suburbs of prostitutes and brothels. His night shots of the great French metropolis are inimitable. He was also interested in high society, intellectuals, theater, and opera. He took many portraits of great artists, like Salvador Dalí, Pablo Picasso, Henri Matisse, and Alberto Giacometti.
He was also a painter, a sculptor, and occasionally a filmmaker. He hated specialization, and often changed his mode of expression. He claimed that this allowed him to continuously renew his point of view. While it’s among his lesser-known works, it’s worth remembering his book Graffiti, published in 1960 in Germany, which features a collection of photos of graffiti walls taken from the 1930s to the 1950s.
It’s really amazing how certain images taken by Brassai on the walls of Paris resemble some of my photos taken in Como (see the two photos above and the photos in this link). The technique of painting with spray cans replaced the incisions, but the impressed patterns resemble each other so much!
While Helen Levitt was interested mainly in children’s drawings with chalk, Brassai was interested in the anonymous engravings on the walls of Paris and their transformation over time.
For more than 20 years, Brassai took photos of graffiti, carefully noting their position in a notebook so he could follow their evolution and changes over time. His first pictures of graffiti were published by the magazine Minotaure as an illustration for an article dedicated to the history of engraving (from the walls of caves to the walls of factories).
Since the time of the petroglyphs (here those of Capo di Ponte in Italy), men wrote marks on the walls of the environment in which they live. Both the works of prehistoric as those of the modern age have been an inspiration for great artists such as Mirò, Klee, and Picasso.
In turn, abstract art has influenced many contemporary writers!
Photographing painted walls in my town, Como, I found many faces and many zoomorphic images. These drawings have less primitive traits compared to those of Brassaï, and are less naive than those of Helen Levitt. Among other things, I noted, in contemporary murals, is the absence of any allusion to the theme of progress, which you can find in some chalk drawings captured by the great American photographer.
Salute to the Masters is a series dedicated to great photographers that I like. I posted other tributes for Walker Evans, Lee Friedlander, Helen Levitt, Ernst Haas, Stephen Shore, Gabriele Basilico, Robert Adams, Thomas Struth, J.H. Lartigue, Elliott Erwitt, Robert Frank, Gianni Berengo Gardin, André Kertész and Izis Bidermanas. I especially love street photography and urban architectural photography.