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Brassai at night

Picasso’s favourite photographer was Brassaï (1899–1984) whose Paris by Night (1936) was one of the most influential photobooks of the twentieth century (OCA photography 1 – expressing your vision)

Here I discuss Brassai’s use of light in his night photos.

Brassai tells Jones, ‘I walked around Paris a lot at night and saw many things. I sought a means of expressing these sights … above all to photograph the night, which excited me’. He explains that ‘thanks to his endless walks through Paris, he was able to go on and do a kind of social study of the creatures who peopled the city at night.’ (Gautrand, p12). We can see through his photos that no subject was out-of-bounds for Brassai’s lens from lovers to workmen to prostitutes. So for Brassai, the night-light brought out the night-life and a side of Paris not seen by day.

Source: Houk Gallery

Brassai’s photos are special not only because they capture the feeling of intimate moments, but also because each frame is filled with interest. At night, as well as the high contrast there is interest in the shadows, no shady areas that serve no purpose in the image. Brassai says:

I’ve always felt that the formal structure of a photo, its composition, was just as important as the subject itself …. Your have to eliminate every superfluous element, you have to guide your own gaze with an iron will (Gautrand, p71).

Jones explores some aspects of technique with Brassai. The artist talks about the use of flash in his night photographs, saying ‘Some people say one must work only with available light and that one should never light the subject. I don’t agree. If it is necessary, I light the subject.’ He also explains how he likes to develop and print his own photographs and considers that to be important, but is not asked why.

Looking at many of his images, it is clear that they are taken with the cooperation of his subjects given his proximity to them and the confined spaces in which they were taken, but Brassai had a gift of helping the subjects forget they were being photographed. He is quoted as saying “I need the subject to be as conscious as possible that he is taking part in an event … in an artistic act. I need his active collaboration …” (Gautrands, p67).

Brassai’s approach to ‘street’ photography involved interaction with his subjects and the use of flash to light up the night if he considered that necessary. Brassai’s small plate glass camera and tripod would not have allowed him to be conspicuous, yet this did not hinder him in capturing some wonderful images of night-time Paris.


Gautrand J-C (2008). Brassai Paris. Cologne: Taschen.

Houk Gallery [online]. http://www.houkgallery.com/artists/brassai/ [accessed 26.6.15]

Jones T. (1970). American Suburb X [Blog]. Tony Ray-Jones Interviews Brassai” Pt. I (1970). Published 19.8.2011. Available from: http://www.americansuburbx.com/2011/08/interview-brassai-with-tony-ray-jones.html [accessed 7.6.15]


DP Tips. Brassai and his work. [online blog]. http://www.dptips-central.com/brassai.html [accessed 26.6.15]


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