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Nuit Prowler

"During my first years in Paris," wrote French photographer Brassai, "beginning in 1924, I lived at night, going to bed at sunrise, getting up at sunset, wandering about the city from Montparnasse to Montmartre. And even though I had always ignored and even disliked photography before, I was inspired to become a photographer by my desire to translate all the things that enchanted me in the nocturnal Paris I was experiencing."
Brassai's "journeys to the end of the night" would take him from sweeping overviews of fog-shrouded monuments, bridges, waterways and streets to the dark underside of Paris in the '30s with its whores, transvestites and opium dens. He photographed parks and cafes, bookstalls and brothels, and the entire spectrum of his era's professional and social "types": women in ball gowns and plumed masks, bare-breasted dancers at the Folies-Bergere, bums holed up along the quay, policemen with billowing capes.

Brassai was born Gyula Halasz in 1899 in Hungary. He emigrated first to Berlin, and later to Paris, where he adopted the pseudonym Brassai and worked not as a photographer but as a journalist, writing mostly for German magazines. His closest friends were artists and intellectuals (in Paris, he got to know Le Corbusier, Mac Orlan, Tzara, Derain and Henry Miller), and as an accomplished author, sculptor, draftsman and filmmaker, his reach was broad.

In 1932, after years of prowling, Brassai published a paperback, Paris de Nuit (Paris by Night). Not only did it secure his place in the history of photography, it influenced night photography everywhere and inspired a generation of photographers including Robert Doisneau, Bill Brandt and Diane Arbus.

Over the next five decades, until his death in 1984, Brassai produced 44 series of photographs, published 17 books and hundreds of articles, participated in countless exhibitions and created an award-winning film. But though his work has received considerable critical acclaim, it hasn't received critical scrutiny -- until now. Just in time for his centennial, the Museum of Fine Arts-Houston has organized a landmark exhibition of his work. Fifteen years in the making, "Brassai: The Eye of Paris" is the first major retrospective of the artist's work in the United States in more than three decades. Curated by Anne W. Tucker, head of the MFA photography department, it features some 140 photographs, drawings, sculptures and books.

As the show demonstrates, Brassai offers a vision of culture, a vision that reflects both his own ambitions and the larger forces that shaped them. He took the pulse of Paris, capturing the city at a heady time: the cafes crammed until all hours with artists and writers, the raucous life of the popular dives and dance halls, the costume balls worthy of Marie Antoinette, the brawny workers at Les Halles, the painters and sculptors in their studios.

Although many artists explored the shadowy side of Paris, only Brassai recorded the most bizarre activities, the places where dreams are dreamed and passions awake, where crimes are committed and evil lurks. Nobody else reveled quite so much in the "beauty of sinister things," risking death threats from switchblade-brandishing mobsters.

When he photographed society mavens and intellectuals, gangsters and pimps, they did not hide their nature, blend into the background or pretend to be caught unaware by the camera's lens. Rather, they posed for Brassai full face and sure of themselves. As Tucker writes, "Brassai's subjects are situated in their everyday environments -- at their desk or easel, or in a favorite bistro. They are neither consciously posed nor captured off guard."

Even in photographing objects, Brassai aimed to reveal the human connections. Dozens of other artists have photographed graffiti, but none isolated its raw, disturbing beauty with such candor. Even when he shot the monumental features of the city, he chose details or angles that made Paris an intimate, magical place. The difference between Brassai and others is that Brassai was not just a photographer, but a poet with a camera.

Arranged by subject matter, the exhibition presents well-known photographs from most of Brassai's series, including "Secret Paris of the '30s," "Picasso" and "Graffiti." There are three series of nudes, ranging from traditional figure studies to compositions that isolate the torso from its extremities. One cropped photo shows nothing but a black corset, net stockings and a round derriere. For the "Transmutations" series, he scratched drawings onto photographic plates, turning nudes into primitive, masklike creatures. In this section, Tucker has also grouped a few of Brassai's sensual drawings and sculptures.

In 1932, Brassai was asked to photograph Picasso's studio, which began a lifelong friendship between the two artists. The pictures were printed in the first issue of Le Minotaure, the exquisite surrealist magazine. At least one image focused on Picasso's eyes, opened very wide, revealing the whites around the pupils. Commissions from Harper's Bazaar after World War II enabled Brassai to continue photographing Picasso's sculptures, such as the cast bronze of the artist's right hand and a death's head bronze skull.  

Thus Brassai penetrated the public façade of French avant-garde life, showing Picasso, Matisse, Dali, Giacometti and others in relaxed or private moments. There is Henry Miller, seen standing in Brassai's doorway, with a mandarin smile and a pouting, full lower lip. (It was Miller who called Brassai "the eye of Paris.") Also included in this grouping is a portrait of Madame Marianne Delauney-Belleville, whose family produced handmade cars. She taught Brassai the graces of French society, offering him insights into that mysterious universe known as "the world" -- as in, a man of the world -- and became his mentor and patron.

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 Brassa 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.

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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