Brassai (Gyula Halasz) (1899-1984)
For more about the early inventions upon which Brassai's lens-based art is founded, see: History of Photography (c.1800-1900).
Gyula Halasz, better known by the pseudonym "Brassai" (meaning "from Brasso") was a Hungarian photographer, sculptor and film-maker who became one of the greatest photographers in France during the first half of the 20th-century. Active in Paris from 1924 until his death 60 years later, his contribution to modern art consists of his evocative fine art photography of Parisian nightlife from the 1930s. His best-known photographs, typically taken with his Voigtlander Bergheil camera and tripod, evoke the shadowy nocturnal ambiance of the French capital, along with its artists, streetwalkers, and petty criminals. No surprise then, that he cites another member of the Ecole de Paris - the Bohemian fin-de-siecle painter Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec - as an important artistic influence. According to John Szarkowski, former director of the Museum of Modern Art in New York, European photography in the 30s was dominated by two figures: Henri Cartier-Bresson, the classic and measured, and Brassai, the spirit of the bizarre. Like later artists such as Diane Arbus (1923-71) and Nan Goldin (b.1953), Brassai was drawn to marginalized groups in society, who quickly became the main focus of his art. Other Hungarian emigres who achieved recognition in Paris (and Berlin) between the wars include Andre Kertesz (1894-1985), whose unorthodox style was only fully appreciated in 1940s America; Robert Capa (1913-54), made famous by his Spanish Civil War photos; and the hugely inventive Laszlo Moholy-Nagy (1895-1946). In 1933, Brassai's early photographs were published in "Paris by Night", still his best-known work. His second book, "Pleasures of Paris", published 2 years later, made him internationally famous.
Born Gyula Halasz in what was then Brasov in Hungary (now Romania), he first went to Paris at the age of three when his father taught French literature at the Sorbonne. Returning in 1904, he was educated in Brasso and in Budapest where he later studied painting and sculpture at the Hungarian Academy of Fine Arts (1918-1919).
In 1920, Brassai moved to Berlin, where he worked as a journalist for the Hungarian newspapers Keleti and Napkelet and also took classes at the Berlin-Charlottenburg Academy of Fine Arts (now Universitat der Kunste Berlin). Here he met several noted expressionist painters including Wassily Kandinsky (1866-1944) and Oskar Kokoschka (1886-1980), as well as the constructivist Moholy-Nagy (1895-1946) - later an instructor at the Bauhaus design school in Weimar. He also became friends with a number of Hungarian artists and writers, including the painters Bertalan Por, Lajos Tihanyi and the writer Gyorgy Boloni, all of whom later became part of the Hungarian circle in Paris. As it happened, Berlin during the early 1920s was a hotbed of avant-garde art, whose contributors included photographers like John Heartfield (Helmut Herzfeld) (1891-1968) and Raoul Hausmann (1886-1971), as well as Hannah Hoch (1889-1978) and Heinrich Hoffmann (1885-1957), as well as the controversial camera artist Leni Riefenstahl (1902-2003), who was associated with Adolf Hitler and Nazi art (1933-45).
In 1924, after gaining his arts diploma from the Academy, Brassai moved to Paris where he settled in the Montparnasse quarter. To begin with he worked as a sculptor, painter, and journalist, associating with established artists such as Joan Miro (1893-1983), Salvador Dali (1904-89), as well as the writer Henry Miller, the Hungarian photographer Andre Kertesz and the great Parisian architectural photographer Eugene Atget (1857-1927). Later he met the Dada photographer Man Ray (1890-1976). He himself had no particular interest in photography at this point, although he often used a camera in his journalism and quickly came to appreciate the aesthetic qualities of the new medium. Then in 1929 he acquired his own camera and, tutored by Kertesz, began taking pictures of street scenes as he wandered around the French capital. At first, he used his new hobby as a way of supplementing his earnings, but gradually became drawn to it as an art form and as a means of capturing the beauty of Paris.
From 1932 - by which time he had shifted from shooting street scenes to shooting the night-time world of Montparnasse, noted for its artists, prostitutes, and small-time criminals - he began using a pseudonym "Brassai". In early 1933, he enjoyed his first breakthrough with the publication of his first collection of photos - "Paris by Night" (Paris de Nuit) - together with text by the French writer Paul Morand (1888-1976). As well as capturing the seedy side of Paris, Brassai also photographed the city's cultural elite at leisure, at the ballet or the grand opera. In addition he did portraits of many of his artist friends, including Henri Matisse (1869-1954), Pablo Picasso (1881-1973) and Giacometti (1901-66), as well as Miro and Dali.
The critical success of "Paris by Night" led to contracts with numerous newspapers and magazines, including Vu, Verve, Picture Post, Coronet, Lilliput, and the Surrealist journal Minotaure. His images also appeared in the book L'amourfou published by Andre Breton (1896-1966) the high priest of the Surrealism movement. In 1933 Brassai was a founding member of the Rapho agency, set up in Paris by Charles Rado (1899-1970). In 1935 he released his second collection of photos entitled "Pleasures of Paris" (Voluptes de Paris) which brought him international fame.
During the late 1930s Brassai started taking photographs for the American magazine Harper's Bazaar. In addition he takes a series of portraits of modern artists, including Pierre Bonnard (18671947), Georges Braque (1882-1963), Aristide Maillol (1861-1944), Samuel Beckett (1906-89), and others. In 1939, photos by Brassai were included in Beaumont Newhall's art show entitled "Photography: 1839-1937" at the Museum of Modern Art in New York.
In 1940, following the German occupation of Paris, Brassai gave up camera art (street photography was banned) and took up drawing. He returned to photography in 1945, and two years later became a naturalized French citizen.
Over the next few decades, his photographs brought him international acclaim in America as well as Europe. In 1948, he married Gilberte Boyer, a French woman, and had a solo exhibition at MoMA in New York, which afterwards travelled to the George Eastman House in Rochester NY, and the Art Institute of Chicago, Illinois. In 1954, he purchased a 16mm film camera, and in 1955 produced the film "As Long as There are Animals" (Tant qu'il y aura des betes), photographed in Vincennes zoo. The following year it was awarded the Cannes Festival "Palme d'Or" for Most Original Movie (1956). In 1961, Brassai abandoned photography in order to concentrate on stone sculpture. In 1971 he received the first "Grand Prix national de la photographic". In 1976, he published another book of his Parisian photographs entitled "The Secret Paris of the 30s" - an improved version of his earlier book "Pleasures of Paris".
Gyula Halasz, better known as Brassai, died in Paris in 1984 and was interred at Montparnasse Cemetery.
Photographs by Brassai have been shown in some of the best galleries of contemporary art in Europe. Here is selected list of his best known shows.
1932 New York (Julien Levy Gallery)
For other famous lens-based artists noted for their documentary-style photography, please see the following forthcoming articles.
Lewis Hine (1874-1940)
For other renowned len-based artists best-known for their portraits, please see the following forthcoming articles.
For more about street photography in Paris, see: Homepage.
ENCYCLOPEDIA OF PHOTOGRAPHIC ART