There are billions of images available, and the vast majority most of us will never see. But out of that fraction that we do see, some stick with us. They move us, unearth something inside. It’s not necessarily finding something beautiful, but a fascination and emotional response.
Every now and then I’d like to share photos that fascinate me. First up is a photographer I really adore and that inspires me: Brassaï. For what reasons did his photos capture me?Now there is nothing special in saying Brassaï is a great photographer. That is all in all generally accepted. He belongs up there with the very best. I don’t want to dive in here into a description of his life or work. There are a lot of sites and books that do that. And I certainly lack the expertise, both as a biographer as well as a art critic.
What I want to touch on, is why his images resonate with me, why they mean something to me.
The magic of the night
The most famous images of Brassaï are probably those of Paris Secret and Paris de Nuit. The first, only published in the 1970s, showed Paris in a way that was probably pretty shocking at that time the photos were made (the 1930s). A significant part of that series are the bars, madames and clubs of the secret night life. While these are absolutely magnificent photos, they’re not the ones that matter most to me.
The photos that always draw me in are those of Paris de Nuit, published in 1933. A strangely empty city after sundown, in artificial light.
It’s images like this one. And especially this one still excites me every single time I see it. Just magnificent.
Worth mentioning up front: I love night photography, so sure that sets the first attraction. But it’s something else that makes me admire these photos.
Most people think about the subject of a photo as something that is present as an actual object in the photo. It’s a photo of … a room, a person, a car, a city. Even if not that literal, the subject of photos tend to be objects, physical items, or events. Things that can be defined.
Not in this photo, not for me anyway. You could say the subject is the city, but that to me would be missing a critical point. The real subject (for me) in this photos is the atmosphere, the mood. It’s not showing anything tangible in particular. But the dense fog, the lights, the trees without leaves – it creates a scene which draws me in. Makes me want to be there, and discover this silent world. Like an overture to a larger story, and that larger story is left to my own fantasy.
This photo isn’t trying to tell me something, Brassaï isn’t imposing some view on me here. He’s opening a window to my fantasy. Everything about the image makes me feel it was the result of an instinct reaction to the scene, the raw urge to share the impression of what the night can feel like.
In Brassaï’s own words: ‘My ambition has always been to show the everyday city as if we were discovering it for the first time.‘. It’s that sense of discovery and initial impression that comes through.
I love it when a photo leaves a role for me, as a viewer. Tickle the imagination, raise questions, give a clue, rather than giving well-defined answers and complete stories.
Of course another important factor is the night light which makes these photos special. The artifical light reveals other things, shows the same city in a rather different way. In a fair number of the photos of Paris de Nuit, there is a sense of solitude. No people, or just one. Not quite what one would expect from Paris.
Subjects that seem to be no subject al all
Some of the photos seem to have really no subject whatsoever. Not even a particular atmosphere, or play of lights.
Many will ask why one would take a photo of this scene. Especially back in the 1930s, when photography was a whole lot more expensive.
Yet, it’s such a compelling image. The shape and textures, tending almost to a more abstract photo, while it’s still very much rooted in reality. Why would you take a photo of it? Because it yields a brilliant photo.
And perhaps adding insult to injury: the photo works because it’s wet, probably rainy, and because it’s night. Two things that would turn off many to go out and make photos. And here is one convincing reason to change that habit.
Why these matter to me
My first encounter with these photos came via a discussion on a forum, and that encounter came at a very oppurtune moment too.
As I mentioned elsewhere on this site, I do like street photography a lot, but I’m no good at it. In general, I’m not a people photographer. As I was trying to get to grips with street photography, I got increasingly frustrated with not hitting the mark. At the same time, I was making often photos during late evening strolls, and I was fortunate to live in an area that lend itself well for it.
Seeing the Brassaï images gave me a sense of confirmation: it’s OK to have street photos without people. It’s maybe not street photography, but it’s OK. It can still make worthwhile photos.
And it’s OK to not so much capture a subject, but to “merely” try to evoke or provoke a sensation or an emotional reaction (as if that’s easy… not). A sense of what it feels like being there, rather than showing what was there exactly.
It gave me a sense of confirmation: you’re not insane for making photos of seemingly empty, meaningless scenes, if they caught your attention. Trust that instinct, hone it and train it. That sense of confirmation was also an inspiration. Carry on. Have something to aspire to.
Not that I’ll ever reach the level of Brassaï, aspiration is fine but so is being realistic. But before meeting Paris de Nuit, photos like these two above gave me doubts. Finding inspiration from one of the greats, and a level of confirmation that there is a place for it, gave me back a lot of joy and a sense of direction. And piles of night photos.