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Nuit Prowler

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

Brassai often used mirrors to great effect. Reflected figures -- subjects seated in front of the mirror, or out of the camera's field -- seem to appear from a foreign perspective, fragmented as if in a cubist painting. Consider the photograph of two lovers huddling at a table in a cafe on the Place d'Italie. The lovers embrace, but they are reflected by two mirrors at right angles, consigned to two separate self-enclosed realms. What's more, the woman's hand moves to her ear, smoothing her hair back in a gesture that is both casual and oddly affected. She seems absorbed by her lover, but some part of her mind is on the camera. Analysis mixes with instinct, oblivion with self-consciousness.

For Brassai, the fact that the photos were not candid did not make them untrue. Tucker maintains that his attitude was similar to that of a filmmaker who sought to create convincing characters in a fictional situation. He considered his photographs to be failures only if they were unconvincing. "Only vividly perceived pictures can penetrate deeply into the memory, remain there, become unforgettable," he once wrote. "For me this is the only criterion for a beautiful photograph."

"Brassai: The Eye of Paris" is on view through February 28 at the Museum of Fine Arts, 1001 Bissonnet, 639-7300, www.mfah.org.

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