'Eye of Paris' lights up the night

Photographer ferreted out haunting images and human drama

Photographer Brassa may have been friends with the likes of author Henry Miller and artist Pablo Picasso, but his fame came from a book of his nighttime photos of Paris published in 1932 called "Paris by Night."

The National Gallery of Art in Washington is hosting a not-to-be-missed show, "Brassa: The Eye of Paris," of the French-based master photographer's works.

Brassa's real name was Gyula Halsz; his nickname meant "from Brasso" and was derived from the place of his birth, Brasso, Transylvania, now a part of Romania. The vintage prints culled for this exhibition commemorate the centenary of the artist's birth. They present a career overview that includes his famous Paris-by-night scenes and compelling shots of the city in the aftermath of Nazi occupation.

Before moving to Paris in 1924, where he worked as a journalist, Brassa attended the fine arts academy in Berlin. He took up the camera in 1929, turning it first on a district-by-district nighttime study of Paris. This may sound dry and clinical, but nothing could be further from the truth. Using a Voigtlander camera on a tripod, along with small apertures and long exposures that produced clean, deep focuses, Brassa uncovers a quiet and mysterious city. The arcs of Parisian bridges repeat again and again as reflections on the black Seine; gas streetlights flicker on new snow.

Brassa also produced insightful photos of people. One, "Madame Marianne D.-B.," depicts an accomplished but bored millionairess who opened social doors for Brassa. The photographer also struck decades-long friendships with writer Miller (who dubbed him "the eye of Paris") and Picasso, who Brassa followed for one day as part of a 1939 Life Magazine photo profile.

Though Brassa was impressed with privilege, he understood the ironies of class. He shot high-society ladies wearing fur coats that dragged for several feet behind them as they sauntered out of the Paris Opera in the heady 1920s. He could then turn his viewfinder just as candidly and creatively on the grittier aspects of the city, showing us street people, thugs, and prostitutes.

Brassa's images run the gamut from the amusing to the macabre. There's a chilling 1932 photograph of a beautiful, lithe lady at a fashionable nightclub sitting with the huge and somewhat frightening figure of Violette Moriss. Moriss was a female weightlifter reported to have worked for the Gestapo only to be assassinated later by the French resistance.

It's not just that Brassa could patiently ferret out human drama. The most gorgeous photo in the show is of a simple iron gate in Luxembourg Gardens at night. The shadows cast on snow seem to block our entry into a faraway, dark interior. This kind of intelligence, humor, fantasy, and candor make Brassa irresistible.

*'Brassa: The Eye of Paris' runs through Jan. 16 at the National Gallery of Art in Washington. More information can be found at www.nga.gov.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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