Brassaï's photographs of Paris in the thirties, nearly all of which were taken after dark, have come to define the seamy, seductive glamour of that city's night life. In these marvellous black-and-white images, cafés, night clubs, brothels, and public sidewalks become stage sets for charged, frequently erotic encounters. Among the nearly forty vintage prints gathered here are some of Brassaï's most vivacious pictures, including several little-known shots of couples at dance halls. There are also a few surprises, including three closeups of melted soap and a twist of raw cotton that slip between Surrealism, science fictions, and pornography. Through Oct. 17 (Houk, 745 Fifth Ave., at 57th St. 212-250-7070.)
By William Meyers
Brassaï: Paris in the 30's
Edwynn Houk Gallery
745 Fifth Ave., Suite 407
Through Oct. 17
If Lartigue's pictures could illustrate a volume of Proust, Brassaï's would do as well for Colette. Brassaï (1899-1984, born Gyula Halász in Transylvania) published "Paris de Nuit" in 1933. It captured the feel of his adopted city after dark and in lamp-lit, atmospheric drizzle, but more importantly it exposed the people out and about there. In bars and alleys, at les bals and the reception rooms of whorehouses, he shot toughs and prostitutes, Johns and nightclub performers, artists and models, lesbians and male homosexuals. The book inspired Bill Brandt in London, many New York School photographers, and several post-war Japanese. It is still in print.
The strength of the best pictures in the show is not so much their unconventional subjects as the relationships Brassaï reveals. In "Couple Fache, 1932" the angry pair sit side-by-side in a café, but turn away from each other. The three thuggish "Gens du Milieu, 1932" making plans on the cobblestone street look as if they were staged by the photographer, but the interplay of emotions in "Cafe scene, c. 1932" appears painfully real. And what are we to make of the whores, the one wearing only shoes and a sash in "Chez Suzy, Paris, c. 1932" and the one in "La Casque de Cuir, 1932"? The look forthrightly at the camera, and present their merchandise in as professional a manner as possible.
Thirty-eight exceptional early prints from of one of the twentieth century's foremost photographers will be on view at Edwynn Houk Gallery from September 10, 2009 through October 17, 2009. Featured will be images from the series Paris by Night, Secret Paris of the 30s, and Paris at Day.
Brassaï (1899 – 1984) was born Gyula Halász a century ago in the Transylvanian town of Brasso (hence Brassaï, meaning "of Brasso"). After attending art school in Berlin, Brassaï moved to Paris in 1924. He was immediately caught up by the city's effervescent bohemian life. Supporting himself as a journalist, Brassaï took up photography in 1930, initially to illustrate his articles. His fascination for the hidden face of the city of light as it unfolds in the dark culminated in 1932 with the publication of his first book, the classic Paris de Nuit (Paris by Night).
Brassaï's subject matter was often candid. His approach however was at an opposite pole from the then emerging genre of photojournalism. The key to his art was patience and long exposures. Using makeshift and cumbersome tools - a wobbly tripod, a piece of string to measure the distance of object to camera, and the noisy, smelly bang of magnesium at a time when faster film had outdated it -Brassaï carefully composed each picture, turning his subjects into archetypes.
Unlike many of his contemporaries (such as Lartigue and Doisneau) who were portraying the fashionable and romantic sides of Paris, Brassaï was enraptured by the seedy underworld that could only be seen after hours. It was in the bistros, cafes and bars that Brassaï discovered his most fascinating subjects. And it was in their backrooms and back alleys where Brassaï captures prostitutes, nightclub entertainers, transvestites and their patrons in all stages of revelry.
Brassaï's extensive bibliography comprises seventeen books, including Paris by Night, The Secret Paris of the 30s, The Artists of My Life, Graffiti, Conversations with Picasso, two portraits of Henry Miller and an essay on Marcel Proust and photography.