Brassai’s Paris, a View Through the Tunnel of Time

Photo credit: Brassai

Before the second world war, filled with the wandering souls of the “Lost Generation,” Paris throbbed with the fluttering notes of jazz and the clattering of horse hooves on cobblestones.

And Paris also served as a subject for the art of photographers like Brassai, one of the earliest photojournalists, influenced by surrealism.

Brassai (born in Hungary as Gyula Halász) moved to Paris in 1924, worked as a journalist, and started taking pictures in 1930 to use with his articles. He had a penchant for photographing the other side of Paris, life as it happened after the sun sank behind Les Halles. Among myriad subjects, verging on a Toulouse Lautrec-like fascination for the ladies of Pigalle, he also liked to photograph people in cafés.

Photo credit: Brassai

Photo credit: Brassai

Another Toulouse-Lautrecian figure, Henry Miller said of Brassai, “When you meet the man you see at once that he is equipped with no ordinary eyes.”

Photo credit: Brassai

Most of the people are not eating, but bistro fare — this is France after all — has not changed much over the decades since Brassai focused his camera on these fascinating faces.

"Bijoux" in Place Pigalle Bar (Photo credit: Brassai)

Simone de Beauvoir at Café Flore, by Brassai

De Beauvoir and Sartre created much of their work in cafés, as did other writers of the times. I once read that the streets, for many Parisians, open up to what ought to be called a big living room, which makes sense because most people live in extremely tiny spaces …

Jean-Paul Sartre at Café Flore, by Brassai

For more about Brassai:

Brassai: Letters to My Parents, by Brassai, Peter Laki, and Barna Kantor (1997)

Brassai: Paris By Night, by Brassai and Paul Morand

Brassai: The Eye of Paris, by Anne W. Tucker (1999)

Brassai: The Monograph, by Brassai, Annick Lionel-Marie, Alain Sayag, and Jean-Jacques Aillagon (2000)

A ubiquitous, delicious dish that symbolizes bistro cuisine, essentially a form of le fast food, steak frites simply shouts “Paris!”

Afterwards ... Taken in a Paris Bistro 2010 (Photo credit: C. Bertelsen)

Here’s Alice B. Toklas on frites:

The Real Right Way for French Fried Potatoes

Peel the potatoes, cut them all of the same size and length.  Put them in moderately hot oil, lard or very white beef fat—there should be enough so that the potatoes are not crowded. When the potatoes come to the surface, remove them from the fat at once. Let the fat reheat quickly, increase the highest flame. The potatoes should not be out of the fat more than 2 minutes. Plunge them into the fat for the second time and remove at once. Sprinkle with salt and serve at once. (From: The Alice B. Toklas Cookbook, 1954)

© 2011 C. Bertelsen

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4 thoughts on “Brassai’s Paris, a View Through the Tunnel of Time

  1. Cynthia, thanks for this post – brings sweet memories to me. As a late teenager I was fascinated by Paris, lost generation and all artistic movement from this time. Yes, it was in communist era with no chances to go there. But I “knew” everything from books. Of course Brassai’s “Conversations with Picasso” was a must too :)
    And the books didn’t lie – fortunately I was able to check it later, with my own eyes.
    All the best for you for a new year!

    1. Hi Bozena, thanks for sharing that title. I’ll look for it. Brassai did amazing work. I’m still surprised at the photos he was allowed to take, that the subjects seemed not to object!

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