Gyula Halász, better known by his nickname, Brassaï, was once called "the eye of Paris" by Henry Miller because his photos showed the dark side of Paris' bohemian life, but he also had a way of seeing that was different: he lent a quality of permanence to his subjects.
By Natalia Lomelí Bautista
Gyula Halász, better known by his nickname, Brassaï, was once called "the eye of Paris" by Henry Miller because his photos not only showed the dark side of Paris' bohemian life, but also because he had a way of seeing that was different: he lent a quality of permanence to the things he captured with his lens. Brassaï had the ability of eliciting in others the joy of dreaming and telling stories about a stolen kiss at a train station, or a forgotten shoe next to a bench in the first hours of the morning.
But perhaps the visually stunning imagery of his photos stems from the fact that he was not only a photographer. He was also a musician, a drawing artist, a filmmaker, a writer, and a passionate fan of numerology and astrology. When he first arrived in Paris, he sold cartoons to newspapers and magazines, but he dreamed of becoming a painter and thus signed all his drawings as Brassaï, for Brasso, the city in Transilvania where he was born; he wanted to use his real name only for his serious art. In the end that never happened, and his pen name Brassaï changed the history of photography by using the camera as a tool for artistic expression.
The rupture that occurred during the 20th century between painting and photography was one of the prominent dualistic features in Brassaï's work, who understood that photographs do not necessarily capture reality, but they can make and fragment it. Only a true artist can convince us all that photography is also one of the arts.
Brassaï went out in the streets in the middle of the night, carrying his tripod and his Voigtlander Bergheil camera, and he would stop in the spots he already had seen in his mind and built the image he wanted to capture and, completely aware that he had no right to make mistakes, he lit a cigarette as he set the timer. When the cigarette had disappeared, he knew the exposure time was done and the night of Paris had once more surrendered to his camera.
Brassaï left plenty of lessons from which modern photographs can learn: lessons in composition, lighting, setting, and technique. By studying his work, closely related to his life, it is also possible to learn valuable lessons about how to capture the essence of a city, or a small nook in the world with as many stories to tell as landscapes to explore.
1. Find magic in everyday moments
Take a look at the series where Brassaï captured portraits of people sleeping in public places: these are unlike other vanguard photographs of the 20s and 30s, where the intention of producing a journalistic, documentary-like image, brimming with spontaneity, is evident; Brassaï developed a quasi-cinematographic aesthetic, as if the image were a slow, carefully-built sequence. He believed that the simplest elements hid the most complexity.
Brassaï used to say that it is the eye which makes the things we see appear fantastic, and that the surrealism of his images was nothing more than the fantasy lurking in his own vision.
2. Surround yourself with people you admire and from whom you can learn new points of view.
His famous portraits of artists and writers, such as Jean Genet, Salvador Dali, Henri Matisse, Henry Miller, and Pablo Picasso, whose images were preserved for posterity in the 1982 book Les artists de ma vie ("My Life's Artists"). One photo on the first page of the book Paris by Night was what caught the attention of the surrealists, and Picasso particularly, who got in touch with the photographer, who then joined the mythical arts circle of Montmartre.
Picasso helped him when he was penniless and unemployed during the Second World War and commissioned a series of photos of his sculptures. He then returned to the visual arts. They were life-long friends, whose relationship was the subject of the book Conversations with Picasso, written by Brassaï himself.
3. Take inspiration from other areas of life
Brassaï built a link between the modern arts -such as photography and cinema- and the work of classical painters who portrayed everyday life, such as Rembrandt van Rijn, Honoré Daumier, Edgar Degas, and Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, who he admired because of their wish to "go beyond the anecdote and elevate simple people to the dignity of archetypes." The same way he showed them, as real characters turned into fiction.
4. Fall in love with the city you are photographing
Somewhere between longing and desire, in his images we find a real passion for walking the streets of the City of Lights and revealing her secrets, from the underworld to the hidden pleasures of every nook and cranny between the Eiffel tower and the high ceilings of Notre Dame. What Brassaï felt for Paris was an idealized love for a place that is as similar to a human being as it is to eros itself as a life drive, a guide to the survival instinct, and the cradle of liberty. This same liberty that refugees of the interwar period craved, the same creative liberty that led Gyula Halász to get lost in those streets, filled with French literature and Proust.
His images were his way of trying to stop time. Brassaï knew his life after the Second World War would never be the same because one of the victims of this war was the unique lifestyle of bohemian Paris. And so, after it was all over, he quit photography and decided to pursue his interest in sculpture and literature.
His photographs changed the way of understanding the camera itself as a language.
His images were a great influence in cinema and our perception of love; he transformed image setups, taking advantage of elements such as mirrors in cafes and bars, just as Manet and Toulouse Lautrec did; and he taught us that photography can tell as many stories as the imagination of the painter holds.
For more articles about photography and art, click on these:
These Photos Show The Unfiltered Beauty Of Everyday Mexicans
14 Photos That Contrast Mexico City Today And Cuaron's Roma In the 70s
20 Photos Of 19th And 20th Century Geishas You Won't Be Able To Stop Looking At