The photographer once described by American expatriate author Henry Miller as "The Eye of Paris" was born Gyula Halasz in Brasso, Transylvania on September 9, 1899. The boy's love of Paris began with his father, who taught French literature and moved the family to Paris so he could continue his studies at the Sorbonne. During World War I, young Halasz was a member of the Austro-Hungarian army, and then studied briefly at Budapest's Academy of Fine Arts. When Transylvania became part of the Soviet Union in late 1920, he moved to Berlin, where he found work as a journalist for Hungarian language publications. While in Berlin, he became a member of a bohemian artist enclave that included painters Lajos Tihanyi, Laszlo Moholy-Nagy, and Wassily Kandinsky.
Returning to Paris in 1924, Mr. Halasz rekindled his love affair with the "City of Lights," and at this time he began signing his publications 'Gyula Brassai', and by the 1930s had shortened it to simply 'Brassai', which means "a native of Brasso." During this time, Brassai met a group of Parisian Surrealists, and their influence was reflected in the photographs he began taking whenever he could borrow a camera. By 1929, he had saved enough money to purchase a camera of his own, a Voigtlander, which he replaced with a Rolleiflex six years' later. Brassai remained endlessly intrigued by the sights and sounds of Parisian nightlife, with his camera representing a voyeur who was indulging his fantasies from a safe distance. The prostitutes, thieves, and vagabonds he captured with his lens are treated respectfully as individuals, not as freaks or social misfits. In 1933, Brasso published Paris de Nuit, which celebrated the dark side of Parisian society to the delight of many and to the dismay of more than a few.
Although best known for his "Paris at night" photographs, Brassai ascribed to the Surrealist view that art could be produced from anything. He photographed items like theater tickets, chewing gum, and cigarette butts in extreme close-up, making them appear almost iconic. A photographic assignment with Pablo Picasso in 1932 led to a lifelong friendship and creative association. Brassai's photographs of Picasso, his paintings, and studio appeared in the first issue of Le Minotaure. He would make countless images of the Cubist master over the next 40 years. Picasso, in return, admitted that Brassai's photographs allowed him to see his own work through new eyes.
Brassai married French-born Gilberte Boyer in 1948, and she proved to be an invaluable personal and professional support system. Meanwhile, Brassai's photographs received worldwide acclaim and were featured internationally including several exhibitions at New York's Museum of Modern Art (MOMA). After retiring in 1962, Brassai focused his attentions on making new prints of his earlier photographs and reviving his earlier texts. In 1976, he published The Secret Paris of the 30s, which presented another documentary examination of Parisian bordellos and opium dens. After enjoying a long and illustrious career, Gyula "Brassai" Halasz died in his beloved Paris on July 8, 1984 at the age of 84.
2006 Encyclopedia of Twentieth-Century Photography, Vol. I (New York: Routledge/Taylor & Francis Group LLC), pp. 162-164.
1992 The Homoerotic Photograph: Male Images from Durieu/Delacroix to Mapplethorpe (New York: Columbia University Press), pp. 65-66, 72
2002 Photography: A Cultural History (London: Lawrence King Publishing), p. 254.
Copyright © 2002 - 2019 Historic Camera