Historical Photographers: Brassaï

Most well-known for his photographs of the Parisian streets, Gyula Halász — Brassaï — was born in Brassó, Transsylvania, part of the Kingdom of Hungary in 1899. At the age of three, he and his family lived in Paris for a year while his father taught at the Sorbonne before returning home to Hungary. Brassaï served in the cavalry of the Austro-Hungarian forces during the first World War. Afterwards, in 1920, he moved to Berlin where he worked as a journalist for Keleti and Napkelet. He also studied the fine arts at the Berlin-Charlottenburg Academy of Fine Arts where he became friends with Lajos Tihanyi, Bertalan Pór, György Bölöni. Each of these three would later move to Paris and become part of the Hungarian circle there.

In 1924, Brassaï himself moved to Paris. His job and his love of Paris led to his interest in photography. He began capturing photos of the streets of Paris both during the clear days and the foggy nights. He adopted the pen-name “Brassaï” meaning “from Brassó” and soon published the photos he had, until that point, been using only to supplement his journal articles in a volume called Paris de nuit (Paris by Night). Brassaï had not only captured the beauty of Parisian gardens and streets but also the seedy underbelly of the growing city and the high culture that gave it such a pleasing air — its intellectuals, its ballet, and its grand operas.

His book was met with success and he was befriended by a French family who gave him access to the upper classes of society. Brassaï also went on to photograph several of his artistic friends including Salvador Dalí, Pablo Picasso, Henri Matisse, Alberto Giacometti, Jean Genet, and Henri Michaux. In 1948, Brassaï’s photos, having earned him fame abroad, were the subject of a one-man show at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City. The exhibit traveled to George Eastman House in Rochester, New York and to the Art Institute of Chicago, Illinois.