The powerful, yet conservative, photographic division of the mighty Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in New York City published a book on Brassai in 1968. The 20 x 22 cm hard-covered book consists of 80 pages and 61 b&w photographs. The design is appropriate, with captions in upper case letters one centimeter below and aligned with the left margin of each photograph. One still photograph reproduced per page; no key lines. The page numbers are too small. The text at the start of the book is a readable serif font. Brassai worked 24 / 7 in Paris, his adopted home, snapping photos in the 1930s–1950s, which are include in this ordinary book of still photographs.
The front cover has a photo of a homeless man (tramp in the 1930s) sleeping on the sidewalk below a billboard advertising what looks like oil being poured onto salad in a bowl. In some ways the tramp has more freedom in his life than Brassai. He walks anywhere he can, carries no heavy piece of machinery and tripod. His possessions are few, his taxes nil, his enjoyments on some days may exceed those of the famed photographer who has to play a certain role behind his self-imposed mask. The tramp is who he is, smelly and free. Still photographers have been taking pictures of the homeless forever, and nothing has changed. All the PhDs and social workers cannot erase homelessness in our modern, civilized, wealthy, bustling cities. Some people will always end up homeless, based on human nature, bad luck, or DNA. I wouldn’t want it any other way. The Garden of Eden would be incredibly boring. Nothing to photograph there.
Once Brassai's images were accepted by the MoMA in NYC, the staff, in this case Mr John Szarkowski, Director of the Department of Photography, and a mediocre still photographer himself, pulls out all the stops to lavish praise on Brassai. First Szarkowski narrows the vast field of European Photography down to two men – Henri Cartier-Bresson and Brassai. Quite an accomplishment in itself from an American sitting in NYC. He writes about the “profound poise and naturalness” of Brassai’s still snaps, and how they don’t seem to be photographs at all. Continuing, Brassai is given the rather ambitious, easily applied, like a too large shirt, cloak of genius, and, if you must know, his pictures exude an “unchallengeable authority.” What the hell does that mean? The book’s images are like a 1,000 other well-crafted still photographs taken by dozens of photographers scattered across Europe in the 1930s. Once shown at the MoMA, Brassai’s photos were exhibited in numerous other Museums. Some of Brassai’s still photographs entered the MoMA’s collection through the generosity of the philanthropist David H McAlpin, who had two passions – photography and conservation of nature. McAlpin was associated with several organizations, serving on boards and foundations. He made money as an investment banker and thankfully used it for worthwhile causes.
Lawrence Durrell, the British novelist and poet, provided a 7-page Introduction. Henry Miller, the American writer, (Tropic of Cancer) living in Paris was photographed by Brassai in 1932. In the Introduction Miller calls Brassai the “eye of Paris.” Brassai would hang with local artists. This book reproduces his portraits of Madame Marianne D-B, Leon-Paul Fargue, Dali, Giacometti, Vollard, Germaine Richier, Bonnard, and Picasso. The one of Jean Ganet, the French novelist, playwright, poet, and political activist, is one of my favorites. Thug-like, he stares at the lens, his shirt sleeves rolled into a tight corrugation, collar open, but most memorable, his bare arms reaching deeply into his pockets.
Overall, the pictures by Brassai are not stylishly arresting. The people often appear sad and bored, whether they are in bars or occupying a park bench. 37 of the 61 photos are concerned with people. No odd angles or backdrops in a portrait of an important person suggests what the person might do for a living. Famous people are photographed similar to people in bars, prostitutes or clergy. The women in bars often have a short tight curl of hair on one side of their forehead. The fashionable, upper class women do not. Only the captions reveal who we are looking at. A few people hold a cigarette, looking at the lens or to a side. Occasionally, a dribble of humor seeps into a few of Brassai’s photographs. Once in a while, an image is taken from an elevated angle.
Night shadows in his still photographs are important. Cast by artificial lights, they possess a deep photographic blackness. No light softens their interior. Brassai takes photos of reflected light, day and night, inside and outside. However, he does not expand the envelope of the medium. He is a capable photographer, hardly worthy of a show or entering the collection of the MoMa in NYC. But John Szarkowski likes to see images similar to his own style hanging on the white walls. By accepting Brassai into the Museum’s fold he is telling still photographers everywhere he does not want to show or collect anything too powerful or radical. Keep the medium on level, solid ground, and you too may end up at the MoMA.
In his own words, Brassai talks about how photography shook of the shackles of Pictorialism and became “purely itself, neither less nor more.” But how does one define a photograph in today’s age of pluralism? Is the snapshot, rich is detail, the only school around? How close to a painting can a photograph come and still remain a photograph? What is wrong with imitating abstract paintings? Photography is used to imitate everything in its 2-D ideal; why can’t it imitate abstract painting? Why is that style off limits? That some bozo at the MoMA in NYC, or anywhere else rejects my art isn’t surprising. As the critic Author Danto remarked, “The history of art is the history of censorship.”How odd that grown curators resist change and anything outside their narrow vision, as they did 70 years ago. How can they write about photographs without memories, rich details, and documentary value. Their language does not fit my anti-stills. A perfect abstract photograph is God Laughing. The same (camera + light), yet quite apart from Dead Troops Talk, a staged and Photoshop image using reflected light by Jeff Wall. In a bizarre fashion, similar to his image of war, the online measurements of Wall’s image are provided in millimeters, 2290 x 4170, rather than a more easily grasped meter. Wall discusses his show in the Marian Goodman Gallery in London, UK, “But I am not trying to imitate painting.” As if that is the very worst thing a photographer can possibly do artistically. Never break that sacred trust which keeps everyone in line. Strange how a simple, decades-old opinion becomes an artistic law over time. If you keep reading that opinion in books and hearing it from curators and still photographers, it must be true. Boosterism by the still photographic community of itself is endless.
Every still photographer is brainwashed by books on still photography, by curators that control what still photographs we see on the walls, and teachers in art schools, some of whom are still photographers. They teach their gullible students to imitate the still photographs surrounding them. Is anti-still photography taught in any art school by a still photographer?
Picasso in conversation with Brassai, “Photography has come to its present state in order to free painting from all literature, all anecdote, and even subject matter.... The painters would profit by their recovered liberty to do something else.” Now that I have achieved pure abstraction, without subject matter, memory or place, will that improve the art world? Does still photography need a great kick in its collective ass to begin the 21st century? Do the few curators that show my work ever hang it alongside abstract paintings or drawings? Painters have wondrous expressive freedom – from pure abstraction to high realism, and everything between. By comparison, photographers have little stylistic freedom. Until they start demanding more from staid curators at major museums, nothing will change. People don’t like change, especially curators of still photography.
Durrell mentions the abstract graffiti (not in today’s spray paint style), Brassai photographed, which “does not render his work objective, withdrawn, cold.” Brassai writes, “Walls attract me by their graffiti, because, in our civilization, they replace nature.” Even living in a city like Paris in the 1930s doesn’t make this statement true. By his opinion, Brassai obviously has a very narrow view of what and where nature is. How pathetic of him, finding nature in gouged and scratched concrete walls. As is true today, as it was in the 1930s, the graffiti artists were more creative and expressive than the still photographers taking a snapshot of their images.
Brassai plays the game very well, doesn’t rock the boat, takes portraits of famous artists and ordinary people in Paris in the mid 1900s. As historical documents, they are a wonderful archive of this time in Paris. As art they are lackluster, carry no surprises, and leave nothing to the imagination. If you like still photography about a young Paris, the book on Brassai, published by the mediocre still photography department at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City, is a worthwhile look and read. I’m not impressed by his images, but you may be.
My free ebook of 50 conceptual still and 25 of my anti-still photographs is at trart.ca. You can contact me at
Tom Reaume, London, Canada