This week on Photojournalism Now: Friday Round Up we take a walk back in time to look at the first retrospective of Brassaï to be exhibited in the Netherlands.
Featured Exhibition: Amsterdam
Brassaï (1899-1984) was a French photographer of Hungarian descent and a key figure of early twentieth century humanist photography. Brassaï first came to Paris in 1924. A night owl, he spent his evenings walking the streets from Montparnasse to Monmartre soaking up the nocturnal beauty of the city.
It is on these night strolls that Brassaï was inspired to take up photography; prior to that he was obsessed with painting. In 1933 he published the book, Paris de Nuit, which was one of the most important books of its time, and his work still resonates today. I remember my delight in discovering Brassaï, finding his books in second-hand stores. One of my favourites is his Letters to My Parents written while he was in Paris which gives an intimate insight into the mind of an incredibly introspective and highly articulate man. But it is his photographs which convey such depth in narrative that keep drawing me back to discover something new, a nuance perhaps overlooked, a fragment that reveals another piece of the story.
Brassaï once wrote that he “saw photography as a way to uncover and record the world that surrounded me, the city in which I live, as comprehensively as possible”.
He photographed widely, capturing lovers in cafes, carnival performers, “ladies of the evening,” “cesspool cleaners,” and artists. He was drawn to those he saw as subcultural, the night offering a wealth of subjects and stories to feed his curiosity.
He also loved the romance of Paris and the city’s preparedness to “indulge” lovers. He wrote, “couples kiss on public benches, in the subway, under streetlights, and nobody is shocked, no one pays attention.”
I recall reading one of Brassaï’s stories about the night when he climbed to the top of an apartment building, knocked on a random door and was invited in. There he took photographs of the somewhat startled inhabitants and also the view from the window. There was mischief in his spirit, an eagerness to find out what would happen if he…
In 1953 Photo-Monde magazine said of Brassaï’s work, “It is a rare photographer indeed whose prints are engraved in our memories in remembrance of emotions comparable to those felt upon reading a literary work…He is probably the only photographer – at least in France – to have acquired such a vast audience and mastered his material to such a degree that he can express himself with flexibility and apparent ease that is almost literary in its nature”.
The exhibition at FOAM is organised into 12 thematic sections: Paris by Day, and by Night, Minotaure, Graffiti, Society, Places and Things, Personages, Sleep, Pleasures, Body of a Woman, Portraits – Artists, Writers, Friends and The Street. Each is very different from the next – reflecting the diversity of Brassaï’s photographic work.
FOAM is the perfect venue for this expansive exhibition and once again I long to return to Amsterdam where photography is given such prominence.
Until 4 December
FOAM Keizersgracht 609, Amsterdam