The Night Watchman

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In the same way that violinists can be counted on to have remarkable hands, a lot of photographers have great eyes. Brassai's were bouncing balls under aerodynamic eyebrows. You can pretty much imagine them in action when he told people how he got seriously involved with the camera, a development he liked to explain by way of a story he heard from Isadora Duncan, the famous dancer. For a long time she couldn't bear the sight of the pianist whom her rich lover had hired as her accompanist. One day she and the luckless musician were riding face-to-face in a carriage. Suddenly it pulled up short, and she was flung into his arms. "I stayed there," she told Brassai. "I understood it was to be the greatest love of my life."

It wasn't. (That was Isadora Duncan for you.) But in 1929, when Brassai was finally launched into the embrace of photography, after years of resisting its charms, it really was for keeps. Though the young Hungarian arrived in Paris in 1924 ambitious to be a painter, he spent his first years working as a journalist. Eventually he started taking pictures to accompany his articles. It was his initial embarrassment at mere picture taking that led him to publish his photos under a pseudonym, Brassai, a Hungarian word meaning "from Brasso," his childhood village. He wanted to save his birth name, Gyula Halasz, for the paintings that he expected would secure his fame. In the end his paintings would be all but forgotten and his photographs would be famous. He would be too, forever, as Brassai.

"Brassai: The Eye of Paris," the thorough and splendid exhibition that runs through Feb. 28 at the Houston Museum of Fine Arts, is the first major retrospective devoted to his work to appear in the U.S. in 30 years. From Houston it moves to Los Angeles and Washington. Next year an even larger show opens in Paris. Brassai is back now in a big way largely because of his fascination with the world after dark in Paris between the wars. Though he stopped taking pictures in the early 1960s, until his death in 1984 he produced a steady output of memoirs, literary reflections and new collections of his old photographs. And in 1976 came the long-delayed The Secret Paris of the 30's, a collection of photographs taken largely in the 1930s but never published before. A glimpse of the mostly unseen side of prewar Paris--brothels, gay bars, drag balls--it gave his reputation just the right twist for a postwar generation captivated by sex. What Norman Rockwell was to official virtue, Brassai was to deadpan indecency, fat sexpots and crazy love.

Anne Wilkes Tucker, the Houston MFA photography curator who organized the show, calls the Paris of the 1930s a city on the cusp "between the era of the Belle Epoque and that of the Modern Age." The gas lamps of Europe were giving way to electric streetlights. That meant a new kind of nighttime, full of sexy pinpoints in the fog, 20th century floodlights over 19th century cobblestones, popguns of brightness in dark places that told dirty jokes about the naked city. As photographers elsewhere were doing--Josef Sudek in Prague, Bill Brandt in London--Brassai claimed as his territory the nocturnal city that camera and film technology was just then arriving at the means to capture.

The dark was for him what sunlight was for Monet, an astonishment, an eternal element that his chosen medium had never been able to "get" before. In 1933 he published Paris at Night, a book that instantly secured his reputation and remains one of the milestone volumes of 20th century photography. A picture like L'Avenue de l'observatoire in Autumn is about nothing so much as just dark and light. Its unsentimental main "subject" is a car-headlight beam. A bit as Weegee did in New York City, Brassai hit below the beltways of Paris. What he liked best was what he found in the black sockets of the city, under the bridges and in the streets where hookers dangled their stuff and planted themselves with monumental assurance.

Like so many photographers of his day, and not just of his day, Brassai occasionally posed some of the people in pictures that look at first glance like candids. By the 1930s, photographers like Andre Kertesz and Henri Cartier-Bresson had begun to use the new 35-mm handheld Leicas, equipment that could capture fast movement. Brassai persisted in working with a Voigtlander Bergheil. A camera that used small glass plates instead of film--Brassai would eventually adapt it for conventional film--it required a tripod and long exposures. That in turn meant that his subjects usually knew they were being photographed. He had to get them to cooperate in the romantic comedies and melodramas of his imagination.

For Brassai it wasn't always a matter of posing people so much as positioning his camera before them and waiting for them to assume the configurations he was looking for. What he wanted were archetypal scenes of Paris life in which the people were not caught in motion but in essence. Even in a picture of romantic treachery as subtly animated as Conchita with Sailors--there's a world of sexy waywardness in those spitcurl bangs alone--the people are as weighty and immemorial as Egyptian temple statues. And even when he made a picture in full daylit motion, like Kiss on Swing at a Street Fair, he's still Brassai the night watchman. He manages to catch his sunlit lovers at the very moment that they kiss in the shadows.

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