Blurring the Lines Between Street Photography and Fine Art

The Hungarian born French photographer, surrealist, painter and sculptor Brassaï is considered one of the greatest photographers and image makers of the 20th century. His body of work consistently blurred the lines between street photography and fine art. Brassaï, born Gyula Halász in 1899, is especially known for his iconic photographs documenting the high and low society in Paris between the two world wars. His images, while giving a full spectrum of the Parisian life in the early 20th centuries, also depicted the unseen side of the city, from private gatherings to criminal activities, and workers emerging from their long night shifts. He was also one of the first contributors to the idea of vernacular photography, or amateur photography as it is also referred to, which is the idea of unknown photographers taking everyday/common elements as their subjects such as travel pictures and family snapshots that appear aesthetically unpretentious.

An Education in Art

Brassaï’s first education in the field of arts came when he enrolled in classes at the Academy of Fine Arts in Budapest in 1917. He then served in the Austro – Hungarian army aid and was moved to Berlin. While in Berlin, he enrolled in the Academy of Fine Arts where he met the likes of Kandinsky, Kokoschka and Moholy-Nagy. When he moved to Paris in 1924, his first job was working as a journalist. Although he was interested in other artistic studies such as painting and sculpture, photography came much later on when Minotaure, an art review was founded in 1930. Brassaï bought a camera and initially began taking photographs that would accompany his own articles, but fully devoted himself to the medium in 1931. His early photographs concentrated on the nighttime world of Montparnasse and unfamiliar places just like the great photographer Eugene Atget, who inspired Brassaï greatly. Besides night photography, Brassaï was also interested in the Parisian high society and often frequented the opera, ballets and cafes, capturing friends such as Matisse and Salvador Dali on film. On Brassaï’s inclination towards photography,  Peter Galassi, the former Chief Curator of Photography at MOMA said;

“After he got to Paris, he found life outside the studio much more fascinating than the challenge of painting.”

A Secret Commission

During the Second World War, while Brassaï was in Paris during the occupation, his only means of income came from a secret commission from Pablo Picasso to photograph his sculptures for a book project. This project not only was the beginning of a significant friendship for both Brassaï and the painter, but his photographs of Picasso remain some of if not the most intimate and candid images taken of the painter. Picasso was known for being particularly difficult over the documentation of his work but fully approved of Brassaï’s photographs. What began as a series of photographs by Brassaï of Picasso later grew, and records of their meetings, appointments and dialogues were published in the 1964 book; ‘Conversations With Picasso’. The painter himself famously said;

“If you really want to know me, read this book.”

Brassai, Picasso mime l'artiste peintre (with Jean Marais as model), 1944, printed 1970s, Silver gelatin photograph
Brassai, Picasso mime l’artiste peintre (with Jean Marais as model), 1944, printed 1970s, Silver gelatin photograph

Brassaï and Picasso

The photographic sessions took place where Picasso used as his studio during World War II. A private figure, Picasso seldom let strangers into his studio but was impressed with Brassaïs photography. Both foreigners in Paris, their friendship was fueled by mutual admiration. Throughout the session, Brassaï became a witness to Picasso’s most intimate world; his place of creation, inspiration, works, his unique environment therefore bringing out a largely unseen side to the painter. Picasso preferred working at night which also complimented Brassaï’s night photography.

Picasso in His New Studio

Brassai, Picasso dans son studio, 1939, Silver gelatin photograph
Brassai, Picasso dans son studio, 1939, Silver gelatin photograph

The 1939 Picasso by Stove photograph, for example, shows Picasso sitting and smoking in a chair next to a large stove that casts an enormous shadow behind him. The shadow further accentuates Picasso’s presence. Brassaï commented on the photograph saying;

“I wanted to photograph him in his new studio, which he was not yet living in…I also took some of him seated next to the enormous potbelly stove with its long fine pipe, bough from a collector…”

Brassai (Gyula Halasz), Picasso Tenant Une De Les Sculptures
Brassai (Gyula Halasz), Picasso Tenant Une De Les Sculptures, 1939, Silver Gelatin Photograph

The unexpected camera angles Brassaï used in this series illuminates Picasso’s sculptures dramatically, as Brassaï used only one single light source, and oil lamp, throughout the shoot. This not only brings a new dimension to Picasso’s works, but also lends a quasi-architectural structure to the images. Brassaï’s attention to the smallest details within the studio environment, combined with the details of Picasso’s sculptures beautifully merged the worlds of fine art and photography by two great artists of the 20th century.

The Eye of Paris

Named the ‘Eye of Paris’ by Henry Miller, Brassaï was a master of straight and street photography who also experimented with drawing, writing and sculptures. He influenced many greats to follow, including Diane Arbus and Nan Goldin who both concentrated in the underworld and the unfamiliar. His nocturnal city-scapes still remain as some of the most iconic early depictions of Paris in the early 20th century. Since his passing in 1984, many large scale retrospectives have been held in major international museums in honor of his work and his legacy continues to be one of the most referenced body of work in photography history.