As I prepare to head to Paris next month, I have started to piece together my list of things I want to do, see, smell and hear during the period I am there. There is never enough time when it comes to holidays, so I usually write a list, vaguely prioritize and then let it happen organically. There is nothing worse than going away with someone who has a list of things they meter out as daily tasks that need to be done. I am trying to avoid becoming that person. In writing my list, I was reminded of a book I found earlier this year following a blog post by the Satorialist, Scott Schuman. He discovered this book at the Strand in New York and was taken by the moments captured in Brassai’s lens during the underground nightlife of 1930s Paris.
Although this book has no connection to perfume, you could loosely consider that around these decades Paris was responsible for some of the world’s most celebrated perfumes; it was a creative hub for perfumers, couturiers, artists and writers, so I felt compelled to find a copy.
I had heard of Brassai’s work before, but not in great detail. When Steven Meisel shot Madonna for Louis Vuitton’s Spring Summer 2009 campaign, Brassai was listed as an influence. Madonna posed like the women of Brassai’s candid night photos in a bohemian-styled Parisian cafe.
Brassai is a Hungarian born French artist who settled in Paris in 1924. He lived amongst the gathering of artists in the Montparnasse quarter and was known to writers such as Henry Miller and artists Salvador Dali, Pablo Picasso and Henri Matisse.
He is known for his photography that captured the mood of Paris by night, which was the title of his first book (Paris de Nuit) in 1933. The book gained great success and earned him the nickname “the eye of Paris” in an essay by Henry Miller. Brassai’s work was at times controversial as his photos shed light on the dark underbelly of Parisian nightlife. Brassai often photographed opium dens, brothels and gangsters. He dared to brave areas of the city others feared to go.
Perhaps the real gem in this book is Brassai’s own account of his work, which has been translated into English.
“ Sometimes I would be accompanied on my excursions by a friend or a body guard. I strolled with Henry Miller through the XIIIth and XIVth arrondissements we both loved. On many evenings, Leon-Paul Fargue, the self-styled “Pedestrian of Paris” led me to discover the hidden areas of Menilmontant, Belleville, Charonne, the Porte des Lilas, which he knew so well. I also spent several nights in the neighbourhoods around the Bassin de la Villette with Jacques Prevert, where we reveled in the “beauty of sinister things,” as he used to call the pleasure those deserted quays, those desolate streets, that district of outcasts, crawling with tarts, full of warehouses and docks, gave us.”
Each chapter is accompanied with an essay by Brassai, who shares his experience of taking photographs on his adventures around Paris. Cameras were not as inconspicuous as they are today. First, Brassai needed to gain the trust of his subject matter as taking a wrong photo at the wrong time could easily equate to his throat being cut in a dark alleyway. In time Brassai made acquaintances with the socialites of Paris’ underground; la Mome Bijou, the queen of Monmartre’s nocturnal fauna, a ghost of the Belle Epoque and Kiki of Montparnasse, a young girl abandoned by her mother who survived on her razor sharp wit and modeling ability. She survived until 1953 and when she died, Brassai laments, “it was almost as though the soul of Montparnasse were being buried with her.”
Whenever I walk the streets of Paris I imagine all of the stories the city’s walls could tell me if they had the ability to speak. Brassai’s work brings the events of the past back to the present and his images will certainly travel with me in my imagination as I prepare for my own adventure through the streets of Paris next month.
English, 200 pages, 1976