Shooting Sex

Who is Brassai? How did he shoot the darkness of Paris, the life of sex after hours.


Brassai, born Gyula Halasz Brassai in 1899 rose to fame in early 20th Century, the vampire photographer who came to life at night. Documentary photography at its finest, shooting prostitutes in Paris brothels. He would wander everywhere after dark to capture the side of Paris people hadn’t seen before. Looking round every nook and cranny, sometimes with a friend but often by himself.

Years before he would pick up a camera and become known as Brassai. Halasz picked his name up from the town of Brasso, then part of Hungary, now known as Romania. Having studied at Budapest’s, The Academy of Fine Arts in 1924 he found himself in Paris. His aim was to be a painter, with a confident passion he had no interest in photography. Earning his money by writing articles and selling them to German and Hungarian newspapers. Something he did with great ease throughout his life. As painting and sketching wasn’t much of a living, he often found himself hiring photographers to illustrate his articles.

His life of walking the dark really pushed him to capture what he was witnessing. Whether it be money reasons or the idea of capturing these night walkers. Brassai pursued photography and doing so with a great passion. Later speaking on this passion, although being born in 1899, he felt a new rebirth through a lens. His real place of birth and date no longer had any attachment to him.

His friends often said how he would observe without judgement, he was simply there to capture what he saw. A way to store life through a photograph. He could put himself on their level yet allow himself to be oblivious, a simple fly on the wall. Because of this he was able to go to places that were not possible for others. Seeking out people of the night, a new angle and the darkness to lead the story.

The ability to fit within all classes of society came with ease to Brassai. And of course, success was almost instantaneous. Since the newfound medium was one mainly shot in light, shooting in darkness offered promise. Making his technique up along the way, he would wait four minutes or more for an exposure, avoiding light off lamp posts, and hiding behind trees to diffuse it. Seizing the night was important, using shadows to create an unease. His photographs have a sense of crime, they make you feel like you are watching from the side lines. As though you shouldn’t be a witness, it’s not something you should be looking in at. Making the story that much more intriguing. Brassai said, the night "never fully reveals things."

At night we are never truly sure what is happening. The full story never quite reveals itself in full. Often piecing things together. And that’s the brilliance of Brassai and his photography. Although there is a story in each photo, it is one we have to create ourselves.

Being regularly commissioned by a penny magazine called, Detective. Photographing everything from a series called, ‘A Man Dies In The Street’ in which he shot a crowd gathering round a corpse to ‘How Sardines Lose Their Heads’. There is an imagination, a narrative within his pieces for Detective, a sense of fiction. Merging the reality with a story and a tale that he forms. It offers a sense of collision, making up the possible story with what he has shot in truth. Words have a sense of being lost, you can re-tell things and tell new things all at once. Whereas with photography there is truth, you can’t hide what you see so in creating that element of fiction it creates a narrative. Something that merges perfectly in the eye of what the photographer sees.

Brassai was in-fact arrested three times while working. Having told the police, he was taking photos they thought this a poor excuse. Everyone knew you couldn’t take photographs at night so thought he was dumping a body. How anyone can jump from photography to the assumption of murder so quickly is baffling. But I suppose the law is different in Paris. Innocent on those three occasions, he was guilty on others, taking photos in the 30s in brothels was illegal. Brothels weren’t illegal but had to have the shutters closed. So, assuming shutters opened meant having to let light in for a photo, this law, however strange it may be, was established.

With some of his iconic images being taken in brothels they draw you in further. Not for sexual reasons, unless you are drawn in for sexual reasons then you can go about your business. They have a sense of mysteriousness, an art that uncovers a truth behind a world of lies. An undercover world that is unknown to many, it’s there but no one chooses to seek it to understand it. However, with Brassai they are shot how they are. And they stand timeless, a woman in a black camisole, silk stockings and high heels, only seen from behind. Looking out from the other side of the room to the other corner, it makes us think how this is at all possible. How can we be viewing this? Almost like it is happening in time before our very eyes. Yet we don’t understand how he was able to achieve the shots.

He constructed a sense of life for the dark. Things that close, after hours it’s the life that opens. Unbeknownst to most who are asleep there is a new culture beginning. The fact these were even shot makes their existence even more superb. The intrusiveness that at the same time isn’t intrusive. Standing still yet we can sense the movement around, being just far enough out of the eye of the prostitute that they aren’t aware he is there. Constructing this life through his lens. There is a documentary feel to them, but they are artistic and created, shooting everything in a careful manner. Capturing life at midnight in just the right way to evoke a new sense of wonder. Making everything careful and intricate. Imagining what he sees before him, as he once said, "I invent nothing, I imagine everything,".

Without change, sex stays the same in prostitution. The way Brassai captured this side of Paris retains that sense. It survives without change and in getting to know his subjects he became a friendly chameleon. Reporting on a sense of who they are, thoughts and speech. Expressions that he recorded. Like an undercover detective without any attachments to the law. In one sense becoming part of their world, the camera became part of the scenery and you can feel that in any of his shots. As though it was intended all along.

His book, Paris After Dark came out in 1933 and it was a hit to say the least. There hasn’t been anything like Brassai’s work since. It stood the test of time, art in a frame that captures an exact moment someone lives in. The best representation for that specific person in the photograph. The grubbiness and sensuality of the shots are present, all his photographs are different while managing to be in the same space. Small details that you can go back to again and again.

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