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Legends of Photography #03: Brassai


(για ελληνικά πατήστε εδώ)

Gyula Halász was born on 9th September, 1889 in Brasso, Transylvania, a well known area of Austria-Hungary back then. Today he is known with the name “Brassai”, which reveals his place of origin and is closely related to the world of photography; his “inheritance” in the particular field is invaluable, as the techniques he used were ahead of their era.

At a young age he studied art and sculpture in the Hungarian Academy of Fine Arts, where he started expressing his artistic nature next to famous artists like Pablo Picasso, Salvador Dali and the writer Henri Miller. At that time, the art of photography didn’t matter to him, and this is the reason why he devoted his photographic talent to journalism. Nevertheless, another famous photographer, Andre Kertesz, would influence the artistic view of Brassai with his work and would initiate him in the art of photography.

At the beginning of 1930s he starts his photographic work. The streets of Paris consist his source of inspiration, while the element of ‘night’ is what he uses as a ‘special recipe’ for his photographs.


As he states,

“Night does not show things, it suggests them. It disturbs and surprises us with its strangeness.”

Photo shooting in Paris at night is considered to be a rather easy task today. However, at that time the “city of light” created many technical problems to a photographer using the analogue equipment of that time. Of course, not only did this fact not stop Brassai, but, on the contrary, it enabled him to use shades and darkness as allies, and to his own advantage in his photographs.


He entitled his first great work as ‘Paris de nuit’, work which Henry Miller deeply admired. As the latter revealed, it was like seeing the illustrations of his books. Brassai loved this side of the city, the dark, or for others, uncanny. But in his view, only photographs could depict his reality:

“the real night people, however, live at night not out of necessity, but because they want to”.

Brassai kept on exploring the ‘world of night’ deeper and deeper in this way. According to him, photography reflected the reality through a different world, not the one we see before our eyes, but the one we can only imagine.


“My images were surreal simply in the sense that my vision brought out the fantastic dimension of reality. My only aim was to express reality, for there is nothing more surreal than reality itself. If reality fails to fill us with wonder, it is because we have fallen into the habit of seeing it as ordinary”.

Brassai was not the distant observer, as we may call Henri Cartier Bresson. He wanted us to feel as if we belonged in the world his photographs portrayed. His photographs seem to us familiar, something which, in reality, is a magic trick to seduce us. We could argue or imagine that he himself is entertained by offering some kind of special interest with his photographs, which carries us away to a strange path, trapping us in it.


Same faces appear in a different way in the same photo, fooling both our eye and our reason. In reality, the bipolar personality of man appears only in his soul, while in a photograph everything is visible.

“To me photography must suggest, not insist or explain”

Indeed, one can find anything but reason in his photographs. The only logic explanation there is, is the one you give, the only truth in the image is the one you reveal for yourself.

What way of thinking and what truth created this oblique black line in the middle of the photograph which ‘cuts’ the head of a girl? Only your personal reasoning and truth can answer the questions Brassai creates through his photographic work.

Brassai’s photographic journey finished with his death in 1984. His work inspired many photographers, but mainly raised questions concerning human nature through his own eyes. Brassai once said:

"Basically, my work has been one long reportage on human life."

* translated from Greek by Adamantia Zafiropoulou


  • "Brassaï" in Horst Woldemar Janson, Anthony F. Janson, History of Art: The Western Tradition. Prentice Hall Professional, 2004

  • "Brassai Biography", Photo-Seminars, accessed 2 Sep 2010

  • "Brassai", Henry Miller: The Paris Years, Arcade Publishing, 1975


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