TITLE: Paris de Nuit
Arts et M’tiers Graaphiques,
SIZE: 250×190 mm
PHOTOGRAPHS: 62 b&w
A child of Hungarian Transylvania, Brassaï (b. Gyula Halász, 1899-1984) was an abstract painter turned journalist, who under the influence of Eugène Atget and André Kertész became a photographer on his way to becoming a sculptor.
“I was inspired to become a photographer by my desire to translate all things that enchanted me in the nocturnal Paris I was experiencing” Brassaï later wrote.
Beginning and ending with the cobble stones that paved the boulevards and alleys of the French capital Paris de Nuit takes the reader through a performance where the architecture and street lights are stage sets, and an exotic array of idle and industrious Parisians are the players.
Working on a folding 6×9cm Voigtländer Bergheil plate camera Brassaï used time exposures to reveal dream like scenes of the River Seine and views from Notre Dame. For his real life actors he employed the harsher light of the newly available flash bulb which had to be fired independently from the camera, something Brassaï turned to his advantage in creating dramatic side-lit portraits of prostitutes and street gangs.
To record life in the city’s less penetrable clubs and societies Brassaï first secured an entrée with an introduction from a friend or acquaintance and then hung around until his face became familiar. Once accepted he could begin his work.
When photographing on the streets he carried a number of prints in his pocket to prove to the disbelieving that photography in the dark was possible. In the early 1930s no one had heard of the concept of night photography, and the police needed convincing that what he was up to by the canal at three a.m. was not dumping a body into it’s murky green waters.
Brassaï found a more comfortable working environment in the formalised institution of the upmarket brothels, which were often owned by respectable families (and remained a vestige of the belle époque of Toulouse-Lautrec until they were all closed down in a fervour of post-war piety in 1946).
In the rough volatile underworld of dives and back streets Brassaï had a tougher time, suffering two broken cameras, a lifted wallet and some 23 stolen plates. Yet in spite of the hazards his images of hoods, pimps and gangsters are as direct and clear as those taken in the brothels, the Folies-Bergères or on the banks of the Seine.
Paul Morand’s introduction to Paris De Nuit begins with the words “La nuit n’est pas le négatif du jour – the night is not the the negative of the day,” meaning that it is something other.
For the Brassaï the Transilvanian, the Parisian night revealed not just another facet of the city but another world, a enthralling world closer to Dostoevsky and Nietzche than to French writers Hugo and Baudelaire, a world of outsiders living outside of convention, convicts who created their own laws, a world different and a world that was to be lost for good within a few short years.
Like all great books Paris de Nuit succeeds on many levels. It is not just a record of a lost and sometimes dangerous way of life, the photographs dignify who or what is documented into types and so never appear dated. And at the same time it presents the romance of a city that has a special place in the hearts of most who know Paris, a city loved by photographers, and haunted by photographer’s ghosts.
• A Glimpse of 1930s Paris, The Atlantic, 19 September 2015