Brassaï is a name I have heard often, but never really looked into, as is the case with many of the photographers talked about, I admit. Within this week it seems like my personal fascination with old processes and camera has taken the upper hand as I managed to buy a huge (16 x 16 inch) plate camera. Without lens unfortunately, but as I gather the information needed, I will also gather some of it here in the links or equipment section. But back to our photographer:
Gyula (Jules/ George) Halász was born on the 9th of September 1899 in Brassó, Transsylvania, Kingdom of Hungary (since 1920 Brașov, Romania), to an Armenian mother and a Hungarian father and he would grow up speaking Hungarian. When he was three, his family lived in Paris for a year, while his father, a professor of French literature, taught at the Sorbonne. As a young man, Gyula Halász studied painting and sculpture at the Hungarian Academy of Fine Arts (Magyar Képzomuvészeti Egyetem) in Budapest. He joined a cavalry regiment of the Austro-Hungarian army, where he served until the end of the First World War. In 1920, Halász went to Berlin, where he worked as a journalist for the Hungarian papers Keleti and Napkelet. He went to study at the Berlin-Charlottenburg Academy of Fine Arts (Hochschule für Bildende Künste), now the Universität der Künste Berlin, where he became friends with several older Hungarian artists, including the painters Lajos Tihanyi and Bertalan Pór, and the writer György Bölöni. Each of them later moved to Paris and became part of the Hungarian circle.
In 1924, Halasz moved to Paris to live, where he would stay for the rest of his life. To learn the French language, he began teaching himself by reading the works of Marcel Proust. Living among the gathering of young artists in the Montparnasse quarter, he again took a job as a journalist. He soon became friends with the American writer Henry Miller, and the French writers Léon-Paul Fargue and Jacques Prévert. A friend would introduce him to Atget in 1925, as his work fascinated Halasz. He met the Hungarian photographer André Kertész in Montparnasse in 1926 and occasionally accompanied him on his assignments.
Using a simple, borrowed camera at first, he later decided to buy a Voigtlander and started taking his first photographs, starting with everyday objects and while strolling through Paris he took his first night photographs of the deserted city. He set up a darkroom in his hotel and began developing and printing his own photographs. He met Henry Miller and introduced him to the bizarre side of Paris. He first used it to supplement some of his articles for more money, but rapidly explored the city through this medium. He later wrote that he used photography “in order to capture the beauty of streets and gardens in the rain and fog, and to capture Paris by night.” Using the name of his birthplace, Gyula Halász went by the pseudonym “Brassaï,” which means “from Brasso.”
Brassaï captured the essence of the city in his photographs, published as his first collection in 1933 book entitled Paris de nuit (Paris by Night). His book gained great success, resulting in being called “the eye of Paris” in an essay by his friend Henry Miller. In addition to photos of the seedier side of Paris, Brassaï portrayed scenes from the life of the city’s high society, its intellectuals, its ballet, and the grand operas. He had been befriended by a French family who gave him access to the upper classes and Brassaï photographed many of his artist friends and their works, including Salvador Dalí, Pablo Picasso, Henri Matisse, Alberto Giacometti, as well as several of the prominent writers of his time, such as Jean Genet and Henri Michaux.
Young Hungarian artists continued to arrive in Paris through the 1930s and the Hungarian circle absorbed most of them. Brassaï befriended many of the new arrivals, including Ervin Marton, a nephew of Tihanyi, whom he had been friends with since 1920. Marton developed his own reputation in street photography in the 1940s and 1950s. Brassaï continued to earn a living with commercial work, also taking photographs for the United States magazine Harper’s Bazaar. He was a founding member of the Rapho agency, created in Paris by Charles Rado in 1933, and started using a Rolleiflex.
In 1940-1942 the exodus from France began with the outbreak of World War II, but Brassaï decided to catch the last refugee train back to Paris in order to retrieve his negatives. Although he was invited to settle in the United States, he refused to leave France. He was much sought after by the Germans, but refused to apply for a permit to take photographs and was therefore forbidden to publish or practice his profession. In 1948, Brassaï married Gilberte-Mercédés Boyer, a French woman. She worked with him in supporting his photography. In 1949, he became a naturalized French citizen after years of being stateless.
Brassaï had been a photographer, sculptor and filmmaker but it were his photographs that brought him international fame. In 1948, he had a one-man show in the United States at the Museum of Modern Art (MOMA) in New York City, which traveled to the George Eastman House in Rochester, New York; and the Art Institute of Chicago, Illinois. MOMA exhibited more of Brassai’s works in 1953, 1956, and 1968. In 1957 he was awarded the Gold Medal at the Venice Biennial of Photography. He used a Leica to take color photographs. In 1966 Both Brassaï and Ansel Adams were made honorary members of the American Society of Magazine Photographers. He was presented at the Rencontres d’Arles festival (France) in 1970 (screening at the Théâtre Antique, “Brassaï” by Jean-Marie Drot), in 1972 (screening “Brassaï si, Vominino” by René Burri), and in 1974 (as guest of honor, alongside Ansel Adams).
Brassaï died on July 7th, 1984 in Beaulieu-sur-Mer. He was buried in Montparnasse cemetery in the heart of the Paris he had paid tribute to for more than half a century.
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