I often stroll quite indifferently past the great works of Rubens and Leonardo da Vinci in the Louvre, but I never tire of the view of the Tuileries, full of children''. The 25-year-old Brassai had just arrived in Paris in 1924, like other Hungarian artists avoiding the Horthy regime. He came to Paris with an art school training, intending to work as a painter, but concluded that contemporary art was "dead" and Paris a "market fair" full of dealers and tourists. How he became the celebrated photographer of Paris night life is glimpsed in tantalisingly elliptical snatches in his collection of letters to his parents in Brasso, the town from which the youthful Gyula Hal sz took his pseudonym, but to which he never returned.
The early letters see him as a student in Berlin from 1920-22, but most of them date from the years 1924-1932, when he struggled to make a living in Montparnasse. Photography features surprisingly little at first. Brassai acquired his first camera, a Leica, only in 1929. He bought a "more serious one" next year, and in January 1931 reported that he had "mastered the art of photography". In 1932, he published his book of haunting studies, Paris de Nuit. Its nocturnal scenes had already imprinted themselves on his mind before he began photographing them.
Little could have prepared his parents for the comparative wealth and fame that resulted quite suddenly. Brassai had earlier scraped a precarious living by writing, ghosting and plagiarising articles for the Hungarian and German press, illustrated with photographs taken by other people. At times he was reduced to eating fruit from rubbish bins. One desperate letter begs for over-affectionate parents not to press him to come home and take a proper job: their role is to trust him "blindlyI encourage me with faithI and don't try to demoralise me by condemning my fateI One has to be able to make sacrifices for a grand life."
Paris was much photographed by outsiders in the 1930s: Andre Kertesz, Germaine Krull, Francois Kollar and others. Thinking to find the avant-garde in Paris, they found that they were themselves the avant-garde. Taking up photography, these well-educated Europeans combined a new modernism of form with an equally new humanism of subject. Yet their view of the Parisians - notoriously hard to get to know - has a kind of Orientalism about it, a romantic anthropology of an exotic species. Brassai is the extreme example. His first book chiefly depicted the silent poetry of all-but-deserted streets; later magazine commissions led to more determined pursuit of the people of the night, for which he is better remembered today. He contributed to this image, claiming that the "most authentic Paris, the least cosmopolitan" was to be found among its "villains, pimps, whores and drug addicts". In fact Brassai's work is more wide-ranging and eclectic than the most-reproduced pictures suggest: he also photographed children and workers, abstract graffiti, monuments and portraits, contributing to an extraordinary photographic construction of 1930s Paris.
These letters, touching and very frank about his state of mind, his despair, sexual encounters, or the stiflingly adoring French patroness he acquired, have a different kind of authenticity. They do not mention many of the artists or writers he met, the Surrealists or Picasso. But they do testify to the everyday dramas of Bohemian life, and to his intense commitment to working, day in day out, at all he undertook. He was no dilettante, but a committed artist and intellectual, a reader of Goethe, who found, almost by chance, that his obsessive observation of city life could be translated into pictures different from those in the Louvre.
The letters come with preface and notes, useful essays by Andor Horvath and Anne Wilkes Tucker, and about 30 photographs, including family portraits and informal groups.
Sian Reynolds is professor of French, University of Stirling.
Brassaï: Letters to My Parents
ISBN - 0 226 07146 4
Publisher - None
Price - £23.95
Pages - 4
Translator - Peter Laki and Bana Kantor