A Gothic poem to the City of Lights, Brassaï’s nocturnal vision of Paris viewed from the top of Notre-Dame possesses an otherworldly atmosphere and a dark romanticism. Taken in 1934 from Ile Saint-Louis, Brassaï captured the grimacing gargoyle peering over the city keeping watch as it had been for centuries. Shown up close in Brassaï’s depiction, the winged creature appears almost sympathetic becoming a somewhat humorous figure that eternally resides over Paris. Head in hands, it seems to contemplate the slow changes occurring around it while gazing over the shadows of the city below. From the point of view high in Notre Dame, the city dissolves into a dark fog towards the horizon with a faint vertical phantom shape rising through the haze as the Gothic tower of Saint-Jacques. A distinctive and almost inverted nocturnal vision from what the daylight would reveal, the central Paris Gothic architecture complete with gargoyles seems at its most atmospheric under the cover of night and fog. As Brassaï said:
“Night suggests, but it does not show. It frees the forces in us that, during the day, are subdued by reason.”
Celebrated for his depictions of the underworld’s nocturnal activities and the illicit pleasures of Parisian society in the early 1930s, Brassaï also fully documented the nighttime cityscape devoid of human activity creating a complete portrait of Paris. Oftentimes he seems to have the city to himself showing Paris enveloped in mysterious veils of fog which created his desired atmospheric effect by softening the light. He would patiently await the correct conditions and capture the layered portraits of the city during his nighttime adventures. Brassaï later said, “I was in search of the poetry in the fog that transformed things, the poetry of the night that transforms the city, the poetry of the weather that transforms beings.” For the image, Brassaï used a Voigtlander camera on a tripod due to the rather long exposure time given the conditions for his panoramic view. As he himself described his technique, this image was a “Boyard exposure” or the ten minutes it would take for him to smoke a rather long Boyard cigarette. This stunning photograph is a rare and beautiful example of Brassaï’s fascinating “Paris de nuit” which captures the moody and eerily gorgeous atmosphere of The City of Lights.