Brassai in Louisiana museum, Denmark

“I don’t invent anything .I imagine everything … most of the time, I have drawn my images from the daily life around me. I think that it is by capturing reality in the humblest, most sincere, most everyday way I can, that I can penetrate to the extraordinary.” Brassaï

There’s a photo by Brassaï taken in 1932 of the Rue Quincanpoix in Paris. The street itself is narrow, and the tall buildings cramming the space block out the light and make the street seem narrower somehow. As it curves away to the left and bends out of sight, you get the sense that it may lead to an escape from the dead end of the darkness and out into the “city of light” itself .

Despite the slightly menacing light however, on the face of it, the street life seems pretty ordinary.

Kids are playing in the background, men in hats and coats are going about their business and under the sign for the Hotel de Nantes, two women are standing watching the scene, as if momentarily distracted from their conversation by something that is taking place out of sight of the photographer.

As a piece of social history documenting life in Paris in the 1930s it works well.

However, the decaying plasterwork on the walls, the general shabbiness of the street, the damp sense of poverty and elegant decline, the hotel sign promising “conforte moderne”, the Cinzano adverts painted on the wall, the beautifully crafted wrought iron hotel sign, all conspire to suggest something slightly more sleazy.

The “conforte moderne” on offer in the Hotel de Nantes is provided by prostitutes, the scene by day alluding to the “Paris by Night” for which Brassaï is so famous. From the ordinary to the extraordinary. That is what Brassaï does so well.

Today, Brassaï’s photographs of the vibrant and exotic nightlife of Paris in the 1930s are still extremely exhilarating, offering a beautiful documentation of the city that perhaps no other photographer could have captured so well.

Brassaï himself wasn’t born in Paris, but his affinity with the city, his sympathetic understanding of it, is in evidence in so many of his photographs.

He attributed this to his wanderings. He simply walked the city and came to know it intimately as a result:

“Thanks to my endless walks through Paris, I was able to go on and do a kind of social study of the creatures who peopled the city at night. I was familiar with all the low life, and even with the criminals of that time. I knew the prostitutes, the pimps, the brothels … I even photographed an opium den.”

The Louisiana Museum, outside of Copenhagen has brought together a marvellous exhibition of Brassaï’s work that showcases this nocturnal, racy Paris.

The women and men laughing and cavorting in cafes, shrouded in plumes of thick smoke, still seem animated and raucous today. There’s a vibrancy about their looks, their laughter, their poses, their gaudy jewellery, their loucheness. Good time girls and good time boys together having fun.

Over at “Chez Suzy” meanwhile, the little “mise en scenes” give a remarkably authentic insight into the daily comings and goings of a lively little brothel.

These scenes, shot in the actual brothel, with the actual prostitutes were actually set up, the gentleman caller, an actor. But for all that, they retain a remarkable authenticity.

Perhaps this is due to Brassaï’s approach to the matter, to his belief that the documentation, the journalistic aspect was nevertheless still an artistic one at heart:

“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.” Brassaï

And to some extent, this approach works. In one photograph, (not in the exhibition alas) the girl is quietly sitting on a bidet cleaning herself while the man adjusts his tie. The act done, the money exchanged, the quiet business of getting ready for life beyond the bedroom door is attended to. The man adjusts his tie and becomes, once again, the respectable man about town. The girl washes, getting ready no doubt for the next customer. No mess, no fuss, no sleaze. Just this quiet getting on with it. It really is quite a startling image and one that I wish had been in the exhibition.

Had Brassaï not had an intimate knowledge of the subject matter though, and a understanding of the world he was photographing, then I don’t imagine such set up scenes would seem so authentic, so potent so intimate. It took Brassaï’s sensitivity and intelligence to get these images beyond mere artistry or simple documentation. Something he was apparently very aware of:

“There are two gifts which every man of images needs to be a true creator: a certain sensitivity to life, to living things, and at the same time, the art which will enable him to capture that life in a certain specific way. I’m not talking about a pure aesthetics …” Brassaï

But Brassaï was about more than just the seedy nightlife of 1930s Paris, something which the exhibition in Louisiana showcases to good effect.

In his wanderings around the city Brassaï was one of he first artists to take an interest in graffiti as an art form.

When we think of graffiti these days, we think of some temporary, spray-painted “tag”. Some ephemeral thing to disregard and ignore.

The graffiti Brassaï encountered however, was of a slightly unfamiliar ilk.

Etched and scratched into walls, it has a more solid feel to it. A greater permanence about it that is more human somehow.

Like ancient hieroglyphics, they seem more than just markings on a wall.

They are more solid, more evidently statments. Statements that cry out:

“I was here. I made this mark.”

They are primitive, ancient signs of a desire that is so desperately human – the need to make a mark.

And I suppose that it was this quality that intrigued Brassaï.

He photographed many examples of the art around Paris, often going back to the same piece over time to see how it had altered and changed and grown into the walls on which it was etched. He saw in graffiti a primitive, honest and intrinsic form of human expression and his documentation of examples in Paris are really very intriguing.

Less flamboyant or voyeuristic than the nightlife scenes, such images are still arresting because they say something more, I think about Brassaï himself. These graffiti shots and the other shots of bridges and statues and boulevards show just how familiar Brassaï was with Paris – with the fundaments of the city. The pavements, the walls, the bridges, the streetlights The things we pass everyday and fail to see in other words. For me, to document that, to photograph those details, is to document a genuine love for the place.

While I wandered around the exhibition, one set of photos confused me for an instant.

I was walking round in the wrong direction and came to the last image in the set first.

A banal image in the extreme was what I thought. A tree, a parked car on an otherwise empty street. The rain soaked pavement glistening.

Nothing of note whatsoever. Then I passed through the rest of the set of six.

The empty scene changes as we see a police car or ambulance almost obscured by a throng of people.

In the next/previous shot a smaller group shielded by umbrellas are huddled round a man who is lying on the street.

I move on to the next shot. A man is trying to lift up the man from the street as a few onlookers watch.

The second shot in the set shows three people looking down at a man lying face up beside the tree, their shoulders hunched, their heads bent low, apparently perplexed.

In the first scene one man stands by the stricken body as it lies on the street. He keeps his distance as another pedestrian approaches.

For the first time it’s possible to see that the fallen man had been wearing a cap which now lay scattered on the street where he fell.

I go to read the title of the set.

“A Man Dies in the Street” Boulevard de la Glacière, Paris 13e, 1932

I look at that first shot and the last shot suddenly strikes me. That empty non descript shot. The shot of nothing – just an empty space, banal and uninteresting.

That emptiness now filled with the knowledge of what had occurred there just moments before. My backwards viewing of it now increasing the impact the event.

“There are two gifts which every man of images needs to be a true creator: a certain sensitivity to life, to living things, and at the same time, the art which will enable him to capture that life in a certain specific way. “

I looked at that empty street again and suddenly understood what he meant.

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