Part 9 – The Rule Making Epoch: Brassaï to Lisette Model
We are back, after an approximately 6-week break, due to the frenetic pace of life, and, frankly, the lukewarm reception of Part 8. We intend for this series to appeal to more than those simply looking for interwebs shots from the photographers involved. Indeed, I might stop including those shots if that’s the only purpose. As we’ve hit the photographers that influenced, and continue to influence modern street photography, we will increasingly discuss the photographers styles, and importantly why they shot the way the did.
I hope you follow the series and tell your fellow shooters to join in.
Gyula Halász “Brassaï” (Hungary, France) – 1899 to 1984
Gyula Halász, popularly known as Brassaï, was born in 1899 in Brassó, Transylvania, a region of Romania that then belonged to Hungary. His father, like many photographers before him, was involved in the arts—this time as a French Literature professor at the University of Brassó, in the town from which he would later derive his professional name. When Brassaï was five, his father took a sabbatical in Paris. Young Gyula (Jules in French) fell in love with the idea city while his father was away. That the elder Halász believed Paris to be the place for his some added to the mystique.
Due to the war, Brassaï couldn’t emigrate to France immediately, so he studied painting at the Beaux Arts in Budapest, Hungary, and later in Berlin, Germany.
“I didn’t do much work. I was registered there for two years. I was admitted to Berlin in 1921 and afterwards I came to Paris [in 1924]. I didn’t paint for five or six years; life was very interesting and I lived a little. I did some journalism, writing for the papers in Germany and Hungary in order to survive. In 1930 I began photography and in 1933 I published my book Paris by Night.” – Brassaï, interview with Tony Ray-Jones
Although Brassaï’s exposure to the arts was via formal art education, he wasn’t a proponent of it for photographers.
“I think education and intelligence is important, but not art. Not artistic education, because when you take a photograph you may be very influenced by what you have seen in paintings and this happened to me often. Unconsciously I did something like Toulouse-Lautrec or Degas or perhaps Van Gogh. It was not voluntarily but because we have a culture in painting.” – Brassaï, interview with Tony Ray-Jones
Instead, he touted the importance of photographing not only “with the eyes but with all one’s intelligence.” Brassaï himself had a fresh view of the world, in spite of, or perhaps because of the combination of his education and varied lifestyle.
My research for this series has found two distinct types of photographer: those who took up the camera early, and grew up with its being almost an extension of themselves, and those who took it up in their 30s after learning a bit of the world and what they saw in it. Brassaï was the latter type. “I walked around Paris a lot at night and saw many things. I sought a means of expressing these sights that I saw and a woman loaned me a small camera. And so I begun to take night photos in 1930.”
Brassaï stated that although he wasn’t influenced by other photographers, he was greatly influenced by philosophers, such as Goethe, whose writings encouraged Brassaï to seek “to put some of [Goethe’s] objectivity” into his photography. He succeeded. His early works concentrated on the “nighttime world of Montparnasse, a district of Paris then noted for its artists, streetwalkers, and petty criminals. His pictures were published in a successful book, Paris de Nuit (1933; Paris After Dark, also published as Paris by Night),” the very scenes that caused him to take up the camera in the first place.
“I think that there are photographers who compose very well but who have no understanding of life or human things. There are others who have much human understanding but no feeling for form. I feel that it is important to have both because one must convey a living thing with strong composition. [emphasis mine] Form can be many things in photography. Photography has nothing to do with painting, but even so there is a frame in which the photograph must be composed. Photography has one leg in painting and one leg in life but the two things must be combined.” – Brassaï, interview with Tony Ray-Jones
Except for a brief interlude during the Nazi’s occupation of Paris, when street photography was forbidden [REMEMBER THAT, FRENCH LAWMAKERS? – ed] Brassaï was a street shooter from then on. As his anti-romantic theme proposed, his street shots simple, not purposefully or artificially artistic, but still imbued with elegance and grace. Even his photos of a kiss were genuine: the subjects are focused on each other and not on us. The candor of his portraits recall later photographers like Diane Arbus: they stare frankly at us, unflinching and unsmiling. (Click on gallery to enlarge.)
The photos in the gallery above are stark: strong blacks and shadows contrast with lighter grays and bright spots of white highlights. His color shot exhibits an equal use of contrast, both lighting and color. The subjects aren’t pretty, but still, they are well-composed, even artful. The prostitutes form an arc around the clothed man, and we bounce between wondering which has the power in this shot. The empty street is a shot not of nothing, but of the light, and the figure of a man on a sign, telling us there are more interesting things to see to the left. We wish to see more.
Perhaps it was Brassaï’s bulging eyes that allowed him to see past the outer shell into what lay below. Or maybe it was, as he himself stated, intelligence that mattered.
“I find that one can do interesting things and if you keep the copyright to the photographs you can make a book out of those photographs afterwards. In one of my books the pictures are from Harper’s Bazaar. I only make lasting images, not fashionable pictures.” – Brassaï
Ah, this is true intelligence, no? Rule 1 from Gyula Halász: always protect your intellectual property. Rule 2? It’s the composition, stupid.
To Learn More:
- “Brassaï (Gyula Halász),” International Photography Hall of Fame and Museum
- “Tony Ray-Jones Interviews Brassaï,” Part 1 (1970)
- “Brassaï,”Encyclopaedia Brittanica (even though they call him a “French artist”—he was neither—the article serves him well)
Willy Ronis (France) – 1910 to 2009
Willy Ronis was born in Paris in 1910, the son of a portrait photographer and a piano teacher. His parents were Jewish immigrants who’d escaped the pogroms: his father, Emmanuel, from Ukraine, and his mother, Ida, from Lithuania. Ronis first took up the camera in 1926, at the age of 15, when he received a vest-pocket Kodak as a gift from his father. His first adventures in photography, and indeed his first love, was shooting Paris sights. After returning from military service in 1932, he learned his father was very ill with cancer and could no longer support the family. Willy had to take over his father’s Montmartre studio. Until then, the younger Ronis had still maintained hopes to be a composer and musician.
After four years, the elder Ronis died, and Willy left the studio for good. He didn’t own a professional portrait camera and preferred outdoor photography to the limitations of the studio. Fortunately, there was still plenty of work in Paris for a talented freelance photographer, and Ronis took his place alongside Brassaï, Robert Doisneau and others at the Rapho agency. After a break during World War Two, in which he took a number of job, Ronis again took up the camera. By 1945, he was a full-time photographer.
In the 1950s, his career flourished. He became the first French photographer to work for Life Magazine, although that relationship was short-lived due to Ronis’s objections to not having editorial control over his photo’s captions. He published his first book, shots of the Belleville-Ménilmontant area, in 1954, and began to be invited to display his prints in exhibitions. Like contemporaries Cartier-Bresson and Doisneau, Ronis was a advocate of the documentarian style; however Ronis’s work is generally held to be more artistic than Doisneau’s, and his work reached the “everyday man” sector of life largely ignored by HCB. There were no defining moments in Ronis’s work; every moment was important and worthy of being captured.
There are no exaggerated contrasts in the shots above. There is no “shock” value; there are no silly leaps across mud puddles. It is, to usurp Ronis’s own words, the magic of prosaic moments of extraordinary poetry. Each day, nothing out of the ordinary happened, and for 75 years, Willy Ronis was there with his camera to catch it, and make us weep, or smile, or lust, or, simply, notice.
Willy Ronis continued shooting until he was no longer physically able to do so, at age 90, near the dawn of the 21st century. He died in 2009 at the age of 99. For a summary of Willy’s life in his own words, click on the video below.
To Learn More:
Elsie Amelie “Lisette” Model (Austria, USA) – 1901 to 1983
Elise Amélie Félicie (known as Lisette) Stern was born into a wealthy Viennese family in 1901. Two years later, her father changed the family name to Seybert in response to growing anti-Semitism in Austria. Model studied studied music with Arnold Schönberg and others in Vienna. In 1924, her father died, and her mother, returned to her native France, settling in Nice. Lisette, however, moved to Paris to take singing lessons with the soprano Marya Freund. It was during this time she met her husband, the French-Jewish painter Evsa Model. In 1933, she gave up music for reasons that remain unclear, although she later cited problems with her voice.
No longer a singer, she resumed an interest in the visual arts, at first studying painting with Andre Lhote (who’d also taught Henri Cartier-Bresson). She also took up photography, learning basic darkroom techniques from her younger sister, Olga Seybert, herself a professional photographer. According to the Jeu de Paume, her initial instruction came from others with whom she was acquainted.
“She learnt her craft in part from her friend Rogi André, the first wife of André Kertész, whom she later credited with providing the only “photography lesson” she ever acknowledged: ‘Never photograph anything you are not passionately interested in.’ Another mentor, whom she befriended in 1937, was Florence Henri.
Model took her first major photos between 1933 and 1938, in Paris and the Côte d’Azur. Although her training was largely informal (like many of us) her photographs from this period exhibited a distinctive style: close-up, unsentimental and unretouched expositions of vanity, insecurity and loneliness, particularly among the privileged class. She managed to instinctively balance frankness with respectful for the subject, and photographed the “haves” and the “have nots” with equal vigor. These remain among her most widely reproduced, and would be an influence for generations to come. (Click to view gallery. Notice the close cropping of the photos.)
After her marriage, Model and her husband emigrated to New York to join his sister, whereupon she began regular work as a photographer for PM magazine, Look, Ladies’ Home Journal, and Harper’s Bazaar. It was during this period that she honed her style:
“Concentrating on the frantic, compelling tempo of urban life, she was fascinated by people in the street and the clientele of nightclubs. As a photographer she followed her instincts, then cropped her negatives in the laboratory to eliminate any superfluous details and thus obtain her direct, powerful and richly human images. Berenice Abbott spoke of Model’s “fearless eye.” – Jeu de Paume
Model began teaching in 1947, at the San Francisco Institute of Fine Arts. In 1951, she took up a teaching role at New York’s New School for Social Research, where her friend Berenice Abbott also taught. Among Model’s students was Diane Arbus, and influencing her style and a generation of others. A selection of her photos, Lisette Model, was published in 1979, and her work is held by major institutions, including the George Eastman House in Rochester and the Smithsonian Institution. Model taught until her death in NYC in 1983.
To Learn More:
To read more of this series or on the Art of Street Photography, go to our series’ main page.