Tuesday, June 12, 2012

The Secret Paris of the 1930's: Brassai @ Florida Museum of Photographic Arts -

Work by Brassai

"Photography in our time leaves us with a grave responsibility. While we are playing in our studios with broken flowerpots, oranges, nude studies and still lifes, one day we know that we will be brought to account: life is passing before our eyes without our ever having seen a thing." --- Brassai.

On the left is "Fille de Monmartre Playing Billiards" also less decorously known as "Hooker Playing Snooker", 1932 - 1933.  Brassai lived at the crucible where Modernism was forged. He was in the Surrealist camp, but differentiated himself from the pack by focusing on the surreal aspects of everyday life. The woman in the picture looks intense, confident, probably a pool shark and at ease around prospective Johns. There is a figure, a bust of  man in the upper left. There's a little bit of multiple perspective from the mirror behind her. The pattern of her blouse is expertly integrated into the composition. The cue and three balls below it, along with her arms, form a triangle leading to her head.

Brassai, "At Suzy's, Introductions"
He was born in Hungary, but when he was three years old, his family moved to Paris. His father took a position teaching literature at the Sorbonne. Brassai studied painting at sculpture at the Academy of Fine Arts before joining the Astro-Hungarian Army as a cavalry man until the end of WWI.
 Returning to Paris in 1924, Brassai moved into Montparnasse, one of the best arts districts of all time, making friends with other writers, poets and artists while working as a journalist. He went out in the city during the night, which eventually lead him to photography, which he initially disliked, but needed to illustrate his articles. From no less than Kertesz, he received a glass plate camera and some mentoring. The rest he was ready for. The Parisian aristocrats, the denizens of the demimonde, and his favorite foggy nights. By 1933, these initial pictures came out as a book titled Paris du Nuit. Many prints from the same images in that book are in this exhibit at the Florida Museum of Photographic Arts (FMoPA).  Above left is "At Suzy's, Introductions". A John and a prostitute get acquainted at a brothel. Brassai has carefully hidden the face of the man but revealed that of a another prostitute waiting on the left.  


On the left is Brassai's "Paris from Notre Dame". He was fascinated by fog, producing many haunting night cityscapes, some on the romantic side. One should remember that although like Cartier-Bresson he carried Surrealism into his work, he was first and foremost a journalist doing his own writing and photos, selling work to newspapers and magazines.  Joe Walles, photographic editor, friend, and long-time photographer (PJ & Street), told me the story behind this image. Brassai bribed the older lady who was the caretaker so he could go up, but she got tired going up the stairs, and let him go on by himself. The glowing city in the background, looking ghostly and small compared to the sharp gargoyles looking over it like guardians in the night.


On the left is "Street Toughs from Grand Albert's Gang" ca. 1931. They're not hiding behind a black wall. That was done in the darkroom. The photogrpaher remarked that even though he paid them for the picture, they pickpocketed his wallet not long after the picture was taken.

 This is a portrait of "Madame Bijou in the Bar de la Lune, Monmartre, 1932". The bartender informed Brassai that she was fallen gentry, once rich, she now made a living as a palm reader. Small wonder she showed up at the editor's office that Brassai sold the photo/writing to and demanded payment. After a mexican stand-off lasting several hours, the editor relented and gave her money (story courtesy of Joe Walles).

Brassai, "Unclothed Woman of Seville"
There are also five prints of the "Transmutations" series, which involved what Brassai called "scratchings". The idea came from Picasso drawing on a glass plate Brassai had left behind at the former's studio. Above is "Transmutation: Unclothed Woman of Seville". Here we see distinct Modernist influences, particularly Picassoesque ones. 

Viewers on Opening Night at FMoPA.

This is a rare opportunity to see some of Brassai's most famous works. It's a window into the night of the Paris of the '30s, what the photojournalism of the day was like, and some romantic views of the City of Light.

Brassai timed his exposures by the amount of time it took to smoke certain brands of cigarettes. Here is a picture of the Master at Work (picture not in the show).

--- Luis


 The Secret Paris of the 1930's: Brassai @ Florida Museum of Photographic Art.
#200,400 N Ashley Dr.,, Tampa, FL 33602

(813) 221-2222 $10.00 admission.

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