Episode #2 of the course Most famous photographers of all time
Brassaï was the pseudonym of Gyula Halász, a Hungarian-born French photographer who captured some of the most iconic images of Paris in the early 20th century. One of the first photographers to apply classic artistic techniques and theories to photography, he was also one of the first photographers to shoot extensively at night and of night-time activities.
Born in Brasso, Transylvania, Halász studied painting and sculpture in Budapest before serving in the Austro-Hungarian Army during World War I. In 1920, he became a journalist in Berlin and documented the history of the places he visited. However, after moving to Paris in 1924, he began taking photos to accompany his articles and increase his commission. He became enchanted with this new medium.
Because he was often awake late at night, Brassaï walked the streets of Paris, finding inspiration in the striking, symbolic nightlife he encountered. Publishing under the pseudonym “Brassaï,” which means “from Brasso,” he published his first collection of photographs of Paris nightlife in 1931 entitled Paris en nuit (in English, “Paris After Dark” or “Paris By Night”).
In order to light the dark corners of Parisian night time, Brassaï used harsh, direct lighting with flashbulbs and powders. Although seemingly unnatural in the settings, Brassaï considered it real, raw, and a tool to accurately capture the truth. He invented tricks to gauge exposure times, such as tracking the time against how long it took him to smoke a cigar. Although he determined the right lighting for night shots by trial and error, he became well respected as a master.
Brassaï photographed all social levels of Parisians, from the rag collectors, street sweepers, prostitutes, and drunkards to the posh jazz club singers, opera-goers, and dramatic ball attendees of the city’s elevated circles. He loved to photograph couples interacting in public, including kissing and other moments of intimacy.
Brassaï became known as the “eye of Paris.” His friends and admirers claimed he could “see everything” about the city. He floated among the people whose lives were animated after the sun went down, creating a lasting image of jazz-age Paris.
The legendary photographer was inspired by “moonlight and fog.” However, he was also concerned with active participation from human subjects. He needed photo subjects to know they were taking place in an event. This is apparent in the staged reactions and obvious awareness of his subjects.
After his recognition as an avant garde artist, his work and style became extremely commercial. Throughout the 1940s, Brassaï enjoyed significant success, taking commissions from Harper’s Bazaar, among other publications. In 1962, he gave up commercial photography for sculpting, but he continued to develop and publish prints of his own photos. In a career that spanned nearly 60 years, Brassaï printed nearly 30,000 images.
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