Evenings in Paris

Different strokes

Evenings in Paris

“When you meet the man, you see at once that he is equipped with no ordinary eyes,” wrote the best-selling American novelist Henry Miller. “His eyes have that perfect, limpid sphericity, that all-embracing voracity which makes the falcon or the shark a shuddering sentinel of reality.”

The ‘man’ Miller was speaking about was Hungarian born, French artist Gyula Halász (1899-1984), who was a kind of an all-rounder. His first love was drawing, his training was in painting, and he came to be known as a prolific writer. But if Halász is still remembered today, it is on account of his amazing photographs which captured the essence of Paris and its nightlife.

Halász’s photographs brought him international fame. They unravelled the hidden nooks, corners and underbelly of the city and conveyed a range of stories of Parisian life. Seeing how overwhelmed he was by the fullness of life around him, Miller called him “the eye of Paris”.

As a young man in his twenties, Halász came to Paris and remained there for the rest of his life. Introduction to photography was thanks to fellow Hungarian-turned-Parisian, André Kertész, who was five years elder to him. Halász subsequently changed his name to ‘Brassaï’, a reference to his hometown Brasso in Hungary (now Romania).

Brassaï’s subjects were all Parisian — its stately buildings, its lively streets, canals, bridges and forlorn alleys and boulevards. Like others, he too saw romance and culture, wine and lights of the city. But that was not all.

People of Paris attracted him. Not just the rich and famous but others from the lower depths as well. He entered cafés, brothels, theatres, and unknown alleys to capture many anonymous Parisians and their clandestine activities and affairs. He befriended strangers who not only said hello but also bared their souls to him. He was a keen listener and as his friends observed, “a chameleon, who could put himself at anyone’s level; he always observed and never judged.”

Brassai was a master in taking pictures in the misty darkness of the night. The task was to portray a sleeping city, “a phantasmal and unreal Paris, plunged in darkness and fog.” An overwhelming sense of silence, intrigue and suspense swamped his images which celebrated the muffled light, deep shadows and unfolding drama. “The night troubles us and surprises us with its strangeness. It frees forces in us which are dominated by reason during the day.”

Silence and suspense

Brassai slept during the day and woke up after the sunset to undertake his nocturnal walks on gas-lit streets and take 56    pictures of seedy brothels, working-class dance halls, criminal gangs, tramps, diners, among others.

As the night opened up to him to reveal its secrets, Brassaï found that “the underground world was the least cosmopolitan, most lively, most authentic side of Paris.”

Many of his nocturnal adventures were quite eventful. He was arrested three times by police. When he told them that he was just taking pictures, they didn’t believe him — how could anyone take pictures in the dark?!!

Once when Brassaï had his wallet stolen when he was following a group of gangsters, he couldn’t care less. “They got the loot, I got the pictures. It made sense. We each had a job to do.”

Another time, he went to a seventh-floor apartment and knocked. When the door was opened by a couple, he told them that he wanted to see a view of Paris from their window. They did not object. “Go ahead, sir,” said the man. “Have a look. We are not familiar with that view ourselves. We’re both blind.” Aghast and ashamed, he at once took to his heels.

Distilling a subject

Critics observed how Brassaï approached his subjects with an eye toward telling a story; how he could distill a subject to its essence and make an everyday event worthy of attention; how many of his pictures seemed fit for a crime story. “He created photos for a novel,” said Christophe Goeury, an expert in photography. “The novel does not exist, but if it ever does, the photos are ready.”

While many of his pictures were candid, there were many others which were actually set up. “Brassaï was a master at weaving truth and fiction by skillfully mixing authentic players with posed models,” observes Weston Naef, founding curator of the J Paul Getty Museum’s photography department.

When Brassaï’s portfolio of 64 photos, titled Paris by Night, was published in 1932 — only three years after he purchased his first camera — it created a sensation. He went on to write many other books, including monographs on Parisian life like Camera in Paris (1949); Graffiti (1960); and Le Paris secret des années 30 (1976).

Besides the Parisian pictures, Brassaï also came to be known for his fascinating nude studies and sensitive portraits of writers and artists. Being in the midst of the artistic and literary group of Montparnasse, he struck a close bond with Pablo Picasso, Salvador Dali, Miller, and Kertesz. He photographed them as well as Henri Matisse, Joan Miró, Alberto Giacometti, Jean-Paul Sartre, Simone de Beauvoir and Jean Genet.

Brassai himself had an innate ability to draw. Picasso was highly impressed by his artistic capability and told him: “You’re a born draughtsman. Why don’t you go on with it? You have a gold mine and you're working a salt mine!”

Brassaï stayed committed to photography all his life. His numerous exhibitions received vast audiences and high recognition including the Chevalier des Arts et des Lettres (1974), the Chevlier de l’Ordre de la Legion d’ Honneur (1976) and the first Grand Prix National de la Photographie (1978).

Brassaï believed that photography came with a grave responsibility. He liked life and living beings. “Life is passing before our eyes without our ever having seen a thing.”
He conceded that there was always a question of chance in photography. “The difference is a poor photographer meets chance one out of a hundred times and a good photographer meets chance all the time.”

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