Brassai: The Often Overlooked Hungarian-French Master (1899-1984)
I doubt many of you were expecting the appearance of Brassai in my top 10 B&W photographers. In fact, neither was I, until I really sat down and worked through the images that have affected me the most. As I write this, I will try to understand why this astoundingly talented photographer is often overlooked in favour of more obvious choices. For those of you not familiar with his work, I suspect you’re in for a real treat. I say this for the very reason he’s included in my list of top B&W photographers: the diversity and depth of Brassai’s talent is unusual. Not only did he produce highly accomplished work across a wide range of photographic disciplines, he was also a sculptor, writer, filmmaker and more.
Brassai’s birthday was roughly equidistant between Edward Weston’s (1886) and Henri Cartier Bresson (1908), which may help to better understand the era in which he shot. Photography was moving incredibly quickly at this point and we can see a (mostly) different approach being taken by all three photographers. Brassai shares with Henri-Cartier Bresson a European cultural history and context and you can see this in his images. Whereas Edward Weston’s work still carries an air of ‘impartial passion’ that may be indicative of differences in the new world. I see romanticism and old world nostalgia in Brassai’s. He also produced a great many images which I am sure helped to shape Henri-Cartier Bresson’s approach, yet he also worked more formally than his fellow Frenchman.
I had seen a number of Brassai’s photographs throughout my own journey, but it wasn’t until I saw a copy of Taschen’s Brassai Paris that I formed a fuller understanding of the man’s talent. I’ll write a little review of this book in due course, but suffice to say, it’s well worth picking it up if you’re looking to immerse yourself in a wide range of Brassai’s work. He produced iconic images of historical Paris, mastered night photography, took remarkable ‘street photographs’, slid effortlessly into reportage/documentary, made exquisite still life images and ‘sculpted’ negatives to produce unique transmutative photo-engravings (if we can call them that). In selecting the photographs for this short article, I was overwhelmed with choice in every single category.
I often prefer not to consider too formally what I have taken away from studying the work of other photographers. I think it’s preferable to leave the various ingredients mingling in a rather more mysterious way. However, I think in the case of Brassai I’ll offer a few very simple explanations:
He possessed great talent for taking ordinary objects, or scenes, and transforming them through photography. Edward Weston did the same, but with a greater degree of finesse and polish. While this comment may seem to diminish the work of Brassai, it is the apparently casual and simple nature of some of his images that appeals to me most of all. They aren’t out of reach in the way, say, Edward Burtynsky or Adreas Gursky’s large scale pieces appear. They don’t require the technical mastery that Edward Weston’s do, either. They’re photographs that any one of us could have taken. They show what can be achieved when vision is supported by will.
Many of Brassai’s images are mysterious without trying too hard to be so. Brassai once said, “I believe photographs should suggest things rather than insist or explain” and I think this philosophy permeated every image he took. It doesn’t matter if we are considering a misty nighttime ‘street photo’ taken in a Paris park, or an elevated wide angle view of a street scene below. He always leaves us plenty of room to do our own thinking and imagining. Many of his images possess that most desirable of qualities: relatable imperfection. They’re not over-finished. They remain open to us. They often exemplify the notion that ‘less is more’.
In returning to my initial question ‘why is Brassai perhaps overlooked’, I am still unsure. It may, in part, be due to the diversity of his work. Perhaps he did not dominate a given niche or style to the extent that some of the other great names have. It may be that his work is not as directly imitated today, because it has such clear echoes of a long forgotten time that vanished when Europe changed in 1939. I really don’t know, but it changes nothing. I am sure his images will continue to serve me magic where others have long since left me satisfied.
For those of you who may be unfamiliar with him, I hope these article and images will have whetted your appetite for Brassai’s work. Look out for a book review of Brassai Paris in the coming weeks.
Here are links to the other short articles in this series and several more Brassai images: