Brassaï- Documenting Paris

Cover of Brassaï Paris, 1899-1984. Hong Kong: Taschen.

I have undertaken a tough task of developing what Stuart Franklin called the documentary impulse into a professional practice. My feedback received with regards to my work in progress portfolio included a recommendation that I study the aesthetics of masters in the craft of documentary photography. The purpose of this reflection is to develop my own eye and to learn how to converse within that genre.

Brassaï ‘s work has always fascinated me and it makes sense that he is the first master I would be investigating.

Context is everything. ” As a young man, Halász studied painting and sculpture at the Hungarian Academy of Fine Arts in Budapest and the Berlin-Charlottenburg Academy of Fine Arts. In 1924 he moved to Paris where he spent the rest of his life, joining a handful of other Hungarian emigrants including Robert Capa, among the greatest combat and adventure photographers in history, and André Kertész, the father of photojournalism, who later became Halász’s mentor (Aran, 2016).”

He became a prolific artist. He excelled in sculpting, draughting, photography and film. “But it is above all his work as a photographer which has won him his place in history ( Brasaii and Gautrand, 2008)”. All of these and Andre Kertesz influenced him in his approach and composition,  publishing his first collection of photographs in a 1933 book entitled Paris de NuitParis by Night, under the single name, “Brassaï”, meaning one who comes from Brașov (Aran, 2016). 

Gautrand described his photographic work as inhabited in tenderness, ability to respond to the outside world due to his permanent availability, both a receiver and reflector of the world around him. Henry Miller called him ” a living eye” whose gaze pierced through the heart of truth in everything. Like a falcon or shark, he quivers and then pounces on reality. For Jean Paulhan he was this man “this man who had more than two eyes”. For Picasso, he was a master draughtsman who insists on working in a Saltmine (Brassaï and Gautrand, 2008). In my view, he had a way of looking at the world without judgement, who through the development of friendships and a love for the city earned the right to take their photographs, whether they were nobleman, whores, poor labourers. Like Annie Leibowitz would do for Rolling Stone magazine years later, he immersed himself into the lives of those he photographed

Initially, using a Voightlander, he worked simply with available light, using long exposures on a tripod, and eventually the newly-introduced flashbulb. He knocked on doors asking to be allowed in to take pictures.

Figure 1 This Self Portrait was taken by Brassaï using his Voigtlander. Note the cigar he used to time his shots. (Eckart,2019)

In Figure 1 is also typical of his work. Using the ambient light he made a long exposure using Low ISO film. He liked photographing during misty nights or just after rain to get some reflections of the surfaces. Note the puddle in the background. His placement of himself looking out of the frame is deliberate to face into the lamplight or car making him and his camera the key element. And it is as if the image behind him represent the view he is seeing. The saccadic movement as a westerner starts from the left first pondering on his face and camera then traversing up and down taking the leading line from receding line towards infinity and the landing up with the bright lampost. It may seem that this structure may be contrived but even for a self-portrait, he would have planned it carefully. His planned exposure and personal handling of the tones are perfectly assigned.

“Brassaï was not a visual thief, that stole bits of reality that happened to come his way, but an artist with a conscious structured vision of the world to communicate. He knew how to project his sense of form with an energy that keeps it alive today (Brassaï and Gautrant 2008 p17).” Sometimes a voyeur but never a Sontagian flaneur.

“Pointing his camera through upper windows, Brassaï focused on conditions of mist or light rain creating strong moods and a tangible atmosphere. (Aran 2016).”

Figure 2 Morris Column, Avenue de l’Observetre, Paris 1933 ( Brassaï and Gautrant p39

In figure 2 illustrates Brassaï ‘s intense looking at form has produced remarkable compositions. The tower is the main element and is carefully exposed to allow for the lettering to be seen yet there is minimal exposure of himself. His own form brings scale into the picture. The secondary element is the play of light forming a tristar. Technically it must be remembered that Brassaï would have deliberately exposed for the dark end. He uses a dark on a light aesthetic which would only have been possible in the misty conditions. The mist reduces contrast allowing for a more evenly toned photograph

Figure 3 Two Girls in a Bar on the Boulevard Rouchechouart Paris 1932
( Brassaï and Gautrant 2008, p 79)

He also used mirrors to give different viewpoints of the main subjects of his photos. Although this was a relatively common practice in painting during the previous two centuries, he pursued it in his photographs more than any others had before. It is exactly in this area that his work is at its most documentary, even though many of his shots were deliberately posed. Upon reflection, many years later he wrote, “C’est pour saisir la beauté des rues, des jardins, dans la pluie et le brouillard, c’est pour saisir la nuit de Paris que je suis devenu photographe.“ “It is to know the beauty of the streets, the gardens, in rain and fog, it is to know the Paris night that I became a photographer (Aran 2016).”

Figure 4 Le Pont Neuf 1936 ( Brassaï and Gautrant 2008 P 36)

I find his greatest advice in an interview recorded in the Photo-Revue in 1997: “As a reporter, I hate slipshod Photographs… There are two gifts a which every man of images needs to be a true creator: a certain sensitivity to life, to living things, and at the same time, the art which will enable him to capture that life in a certain specific way. I’m not talking about pure aesthetics: a confused photo is just isn’t capable of penetrating the viewer’s memory. I’ve always felt that the formal structure of a photo, it’s composition, is just as important as the subject itself… you have to eliminate every superfluous element, you have to guide your own gaze with an iron will. you have to take the viewer’s gaze, and lead it to what is interesting”

Fig 5 Avenue de l’Observervatoire 1934 (Brassaï and Gautrant 2008 P 51)

However, it is the work among the peoples in the street that links him to my work and MA project. These relate to the people still experiencing the pains of the underbelly of modernisation and the existence of serfdom.

Fig 6 Tramps on the Quai des Orfevres Paris 1930-1932 (Brassaï and Gautrant 2008 P 45)
Fig 7 Rag Picker Paris 1931-32 (Brassaï and Gautrant 2008 P 59)
Fig 8 Another version not selected for the book (, 2019)

Figure 7 and 8 show two photographs of a Rag Picker. Figure 6 was published but Fig 8 not. It is clear that Brassaï framed the picture first and then asked the ragpicker to go ahead with his activity or to pose. He then changed his angle and the position of his light source and his lens. Fig 7 was taken with a wide-angle lens and Figure 5 with a normal lens He, however, did not change or position items in the scene. the bottle is observable in both pictures.

Meat Porter at Les Halles ( “The King of Ethiopia”) (Brassaï and Gautrant 2008 P 68)

Brassaï ranged his photographs from wide landscapes to close-ups. The projects took a number of years to complete. The fact that he published three books from this time indicated that he collected more than one project at a time. Paris at night was his commission. The seedy underworld was done at the same time as a personal project and he took some Paris graffiti which he published separately. These are a number of principles that hold true for documentary work until today.

I would have not considered using lighting in my work until now, but I did discover that it one has to engage with your subjects even if you want it to look candid. The direction is part of the job as it is the case with wedding photography.

Modern cameras provide opportunities that Brassaï never had. We have built-in light meters, digital sensors have no reciprocity problems and technologies made it possible for noise-free ISO levels that Brassaï would never have dreamt of. The dynamic range of digital cameras has just bypassed the range of 7 EV stops of black and white film and colour is now standard. The only exception is that digital performs in the same way as slides and one has to expose for the highlights and not the darkest legible detail. Portable light sources have improved so much allowing compositional opportunities. It is time to explore these new boundaries and see what we can achieve.

But in the end, it will require the same commitment in time, engagement with life and absolute control over composition and form.

Concluding in the words of Gautrand: ” This fact, this sense of restraint, underlies his extraordinary self-control. He took very few pictures, but when he did release the shutter, it was because he had reached or recognised a moment of concentration, of permanence, in which the essence of a situation was immediately visible. Each image, then, is a naturally occurring visual-emotional compound which demands to be taken as a whole (Brassaï and Gautrant 2008 P9).”


Aran, S. (2016). Paris Photographers: Brassaï, The Transylvanian Eye. [online] Bonjour Paris. Available at: [Accessed 16 Nov. 2019].

Brassaï and Gautrand, J. (2008). Brassaï Paris, 1899-1984. Hong Kong: Taschen.

Eckardt, S. (2019). What Nightlife Looked Like in 1930s Paris. [online] W Magazine. Available at: [Accessed 16 Nov. 2019]. (2019). [online] Available at: [Accessed 17 Nov. 2019].