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Brassai

Text from Sarah Greenough and Joel Snyder, On the Art of Fixing a Shadow: One Hundred and Fifty Years of Photography

In photographing the hoodlums, prostitutes, transvestites, opium dens, and cheap music halls of Paris, as well as the better-known boulevards and attractions of the nocturnal city, Brassai came to know the city inside out, as Henry Miller remarked in describing their meandering together in his 1934 novel Tropic of Cancer. The exploration of the Parisian demi-monde as a massive communal subconscious was not initially a photographic endeavor, but one present in Mac Orlan's literary idea of the "social fantastic," In which the erotic and threatening was situated out of easy view "where man is in the habit of disposing of undesirable or harmful elements that threaten his existence." Before Brassai learned from his compatriot Kertész that photography at night was possible, he roamed the streets at night with friends, such as the poet Léon-Paul Fargue. The publication of Brassai's book Paris de nuit (Paris by Night) in 1933 had been preceded, by a year, by Fargue's celebrated Le piéton de Paris (The Pedestrian of Paris), an account of his wanderings about the city in search of its residual soul, which in turn followed Loius Aragon's 1926 novel Le paysan de Paris (The Peasant of Paris).

Brassai's camera, tripod, and lighting equipment required him to be bold rather than inconspicuous if he were to show Paris in the mood of the city through its walls and deserted streets and the activities they concealed. His passion was not for the pure photographic rendition of static objects or in the split-second exposures that uncovered the interior of the moment. Rather, his aspiration was to be a kind of recording secretary to the act of living. His photographs were frank and, like Sander's, convincing for he too secured the confidence and cooperation of his subjects, treating them as if they were actors and actresses playing their own roles.


 


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