Nuit Prowler

In the 1930s, Paris was quite a city. And Brassai was quite a photographer.

Brassai also photographed ordinary objects -- bread, a thimble, matches -- at very close range, transforming the items by changing their proportions. In his photographs of Paris by day, ordinary events are similarly elevated from insignificant to surprising. A young couple locked in a kiss are literally swept off their feet as an amusement ride swings them into the air. A painted cat seemingly mocks the serious discussion of policemen on their beat. A child's enchantment with a balloon draws the viewer's attention from a balloon vendor completely obscured by his merchandise. Admittedly, some viewers may flinch at such open displays of tender sentiments. As Tucker writes, "There has been a tendency to assign all expression of good-hearted sentiment, however discerning, and examples of maudlin sentimentality to the same dustbin."

Even so, the exhibition confirms that Brassaē was most explosively creative during his first three years of photography. The images of "Paris de Nuit" and "Secret Paris of the '30s" show powerful conviction and psychological complexity. Brassai was well aware that Paris was in transition between the Belle Epoque and the Modern Age and knew that much of what he photographed was on the cusp of disappearing. Among the first images of "Paris de Nuit" is a gas company employee lighting a lamp on the Place de la Concorde, illuminating the people and places that figure in the subsequent photographs. From here, Brassai sought to make timeless pictures with richly layered references to cultural and historical matters. A velvety phosphorescence halos his unforgettable image of the Marshall Ney statue; its drawn sword points through the mist at a distant hotel's neon sign.

Often in Brassai's photos, the background is as important as the foreground. He'd look through the arch of one bridge to other bridges farther down the Seine, making them all appear like staples hooking the Right Bank to the Left. Looking Through Pont Marie to Pont Louis Phillippe evokes the emotions of a waking dream as boats, pinpoints of light and shimmery reflections on water add up to a ghostly effect.

Brassai often shot panoramic views or photographed from high vantage points, enabling him to maintain a respectful distance from his subject while emphasizing its graphic features. A patterned field of wet paving stones is lit by a streetlight. In the photograph of the Luxembourg Gardens, the grillwork of the fence captures the shadowy space of a public area when its gate is shut and locked.

In such photos, the city that emerges is a deserted one. When people appear, they are glimpsed at a distance or subordinated to the scene's graphic elements. One critic has argued that "Paris de Nuit" has Brassai poised on the brink of the city, ready to descend and become a part of it in a way no photographer had before.

It's from those heights that "Secret Paris" descends first into the streets, then into cafes and dance halls, and finally into brothels and opium dens. What Brassai portrays in "Secret Paris" is not depravity but the incessant repetition of desire. Significantly, he didn't publish the photographs until 1976, claiming that pictures of prostitutes lining up for customers or squatting on a bidet couldn't be shown in public when he first took them.

Brassai's night people -- sinister, haunting and beautiful -- are also profoundly human. There is La Mame Bijou, whom he encountered in the Bar de la Lune in Montmartre. A fantastic apparition, the aged courtesan is covered with an incredible quantity of jewelry: brooches, chokers, clips, chains. Rings have been crammed on up to her knuckles, which are entwined in the fake-pearl necklaces she has wrapped around her wrists like bracelets. Another subject, Kiki of Montparnasse, accompanied by her accordion player, sang at the Cabaret des Fleurs. The stunning dark-haired girl radiates seductiveness.

Brassai's subjects are classic wanderers, transients, figures of exclusion, yet they are obviously comfortable with the photographer; it shows that he spent years studying and befriending them before he pushed the shutter release on his camera. Among his most astonishing pictures are those taken in mirror-lined cafes and dance halls, spaces open to the public, yet where strangers feel unwelcome.

Most viewers take for granted that Brassai's pictures are unposed, but, as Tucker points out, the world of Montmartre was one of natural poseurs. And for technical reasons, his subjects would have been thoroughly aware of the camera: his Berghel Voigtlander had to be mounted on a tripod and in a cafe's light would have required either a lengthy exposure or a noisy magnesium-powder flash fired by an assistant. Perhaps Brassai's subjects were primed, on his signal, to synchronize themselves to the flash, or perhaps he asked them to hold themselves still during a long exposure. Either way, the cabarets, balls, Folies-Bergere, cafes and "houses of illusion" served as a kind of theater where public performances and private fantasies were played out.

Because photographing bordellos was illegal, Brassai posed a friend as the male in a number of photographs taken at "Suzy's." In "Introductions at Suzy's," the man is seen making a selection from the bevy of nude women standing with their backs to the viewer; he is also seen adjusting his tie in the mirror of the armoire as a prostitute washes herself on the bidet. For all their extraordinary power, these photos of a sinning, bohemian Paris of the '30s look innocent.

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