Research Notes – Brassaï

The following notes are based on images seen from two compilation books of Brassaï’s pictures: “For the love of Paris”(1) and “No Ordinary Eyes”(2).

They contained a number of pictures from various projects of Brassai, but I primarily focused on its artificial light work, including his night shots of Paris, but also looking at his indoors work.

Brassai’s night street photography of Paris makes extensive use of light, shadow and contrast to explore form and to move the attention of the viewer through the frame. In his picture “The Canal de l’Ourcq”, c. 1932 (see here), Brassai beautifully captures the shadows created by the street lamp shining through railings and that illuminates the buildings on the other side of the canal, capturing in this way something that would not normally be seen during daylight. A new reality generated by artificial light and pleasantly captured by the photographer’s composition. He explored the effect of street light on shadows and the new forms these create in a number of other pictures, including his series of cobblestones between 1931 and 1932 (see here and here), and in his photographs of the Gardens of Luxemburg (such as this one) or street gratings (here).

In addition to his exploration of light and form at night, what I like the most about Brassai’s night street photography is how he uses the directional properties of artificial light to create high contrast and give the pictures an aura of mystery and intrigue. This can be seen clearly in his series “bad boys” (1931-32). These pictures, and particularly this one, are printed with just the subjects in mind, and the light is there just for the subjects. Anything else is irrelevant and consequently, can be rendered as pure black or in dark tones. It is this economy of form that I like the most about these pictures. This could not be achieved in broad daylight, where the surroundings of the subjects would always be illuminated to a certain extent, and is what makes artificial light work for me in these pictures. Not all his pictures are rendered this way, and some of his indoor artificial light pictures, while still placing the subject in a favourable position, are taken under softer, less contrasty light, which undermines the effect somehow (see for instance his pictures on Maison Close on Rue Monsieur le Prince, c. 1931, in here, where you can make up the surrounding areas around the main subjects, including people on-looking in the shadows). In some of his indoor pictures the light does not fall directly on the subject, or does not cover it fully, and these are a bit disappointing to look at and probably not as effective as his street photos (see for instance this picture of the Suzy brothel, but also this picture, where the light is too dispersed).

Finally, another aspect of Bressai’s night photography work that I particularly enjoy is his ability to create new forms by placing the camera at the correct spot. This is in following with my earlier comment on the shadows and railings effect, but perhaps taken to the next level, a level where it can only be seen by working the subject and moving around until the desired effect is achieved. My favourite of his pictures that has elements of this is his shot of the Morris Column, around 1931-32 (see here), where the column is blocking a street light and the light coming through the top combines with the fog to create interesting shadows, as well as highlighting the silhouette of the column. This again is something that could not be created in daylight and something in which the photographer can have a clear input, not only in the timing (eg waiting for the person to walk by the column to give scale) but also in his positioning and the overall framing, thus creating something that he could call his own.

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(1) of, D., Paris, the C. of, de Gouvion Saint-Cyr, A. and Brassai, G. (2013) Brassaï, for the love of Paris: [exhibition, Paris, Hôtel de Ville, Salle Saint-Jean, November 8, 2013-March 8, 2014]. Paris: Flammarion.

(2) Brassaï, Grenier, R. and Alexander, S. (2000) Brassaï. London: Thames & Hudson.

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