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Brassai: MOMA, New York (Book Review)

Brassai: MOMA, New York

Brassai (1899-1984) was a Transylvanian painter who arrived in Paris in 1923 under his real name, Gyula Halasz. He was 24 years old and fell in with the “poets and painters of Montmartre and Montparnasse – young men like Picasso and Dali and Braque.” These circles were the centre of the European art world – Man Ray, Rene Clair, Andre Kertesz. It was Kertesz who loaned Brassai a camera to start him on the path to photography master.

Reading the essay introduction to Brassai: Museum of Modern Art, New York, by John Szarkowsi offers an insight into the middle aged Brassai and his approach to making a simple photograph.

Brassai is probably most famous for documenting Paris and it’s seedier culture, particularly at night, through the lens of his Voigtlander Bergheil 6.5 x 9, a camera still in his hands into old age along with a rickety old tripod when this book was made in 1968. “After twenty years you can begin to be sure what a camera will do,” he said. Many of our most enduring images of famous artists in Paris in the early part of the Twentieth Century were taken by Brassai.

His words speak volumes to the modern photographer with the technology in hand to create flawless images at zero cost using a machine gun digital methodology:

Yes, I only take one or two or three pictures of a subject, unless I get carried away; I find it concentrates one more to shoot less. Of course it’s chancy; when you shoot a lot you stand a better chance, but then you are subjecting yourself to the law of accident – if accident has a law. I prefer to try and if necessary fail. When I succeed, however, I am much happier than I would be if I shot a million pictures on the off-chance. I feel that I have really made it myself, that picture, not won it in a lottery.Brassai

Brassai also passionately disbelieved in specialisation in any single medium – he excelled at photography, drawing, painting, writing, sculpting, filmmaking, theatre decor and engraving. At the point of Szarkowski’s book, the subject of this review, Brassai had published an impressive 15 books and made a global impact in numerous creative fields.

My love of Brassai’s photography is his willingness to embrace shadows and darkness along with light and contrast. His eye gives us humour, elegance and a profound understanding of structure that probably comes from his formal training as a young painter.

I feel a little meek that I find night photography daunting with a contemporary DSLR and fast glass or even the 30 year old Bronica ETRS medium format film camera. Brassai shot Paris at night between World Wars using a Heliar f4.5 lens of the era. An amazing technical feat in photography.

If you haven’t seen a lot of Brassai photography you should keep him in mind. I find that nearly every time I open this book I become aware of deeper facets in the images. It’s a book that keeps giving.

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About the Author

Steven Clark Steven Clark - the stand up guy on this site

My name is Steven Clark (aka nortypig) and I live in Southern Tasmania. I have an MBA (Specialisation) and a Bachelor of Computing from the University of Tasmania. I'm a photographer making pictures with film. A web developer for money. A business consultant for fun. A journalist on paper. Dreams of owning the World. Idea champion. Paradox. Life partner to Megan.

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