Paris of the 1930s was a busy place. It drew top end musicians, performers and dancers; was documented by notable writers, painters and poets; and provided the scenes for some iconic photographs. One of the notable photographers working this beat was Brassaï (born Gyula Halász in 1899). A trained painter and sculptor, he moved to Paris in 1924 as a journalist and by 1929 began photographing the underbelly of Paris by night.
Brassaï used a Voigtländer Bergheil 9×12 plate camera. In fact he continued to do so for many years and while other photographers moved to Leica and 35mm, he opted not to upgrade his equipment instead adapting his Voigtländer for film (later he moved to Rolleiflex). Along with this he used a wooden tripod and occasionally flash, which he diffused with a reflecting screen. This was conspicuous gear – his were not “stolen shots”. His objective was to show the night in static, motionless images. His technique was to set up camera, pose the subject, and then wait as they relaxed in the position.
Brassaï chose to photograph the darker side of the night. Scenes from backstage at the Folies-Bergère, the stars of the riskier clubs, the streets as the night winds down; some saucy, some quite seedy. Many of the – now iconic – images he published in 1933, in a collection, Paris de Nuit. Images he felt too explicit for that publication he released later, in 1976 in The Secret Paris of the 30’s.
Reproducing his look is becoming a bit of an ambition (obsession?) for many iPhonographers with tips, suggestions and shared ideas online. But it’s tricky when our scenes are floodlit, rather than the soft contrasts of his murky gas lights and dim electric bulbs.
By the way, Voigtländer, originally an optical company, was founded in 1756 and producing photographic lenses by the mid 1880s. It’s still going strong.
Brassaï’s work is often exhibited at galleries around the world. Currently you can see a collection of his Paris by night photographs at the Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts (NAFA) in Singapore (ends 18 December).
Paris by Night (Photographs by Brassaï)