New York Photobooks

About photobooks – old and new.

Brassai – The Secret Paris of the 30’s

Big cities always have a mysterious side, one not easily accessible to the neophytes. Paris does not escape that rule and Brassai himself explored it in two seminal photobooks : “Paris by Night” in 1933 and “The Secret Paris of the 30’s” in 1974. In both books, Brassai explored a side of Paris which came to life after dark. As he said himself “I was inspired to become a photographer by my desire to translate all things that enchanted me in the nocturnal Paris I was experiencing”.

The photo book “The Secret Paris of the 30’s” is arguably the most audacious photography work about the forbidden Paris of that time. In “Paris by Night”, Brassai had already presented some photographs of the city’s less penetrable clubs and societies. However, in “The Secret Paris…” Brassai extends his “voyage to the end of the night” and exposes more boldly “the other world, the fringe world, the secret, sinister world of mobsters, outcasts, toughs, pimps, whores, addicts, and [sexual] inverts.”

What made the book “The Secret Paris of the 30´s” even more special, is the fact that this series of secret photographs had not been published before 1976 because of their daring nature. The exploration of Paris’ demimonde was not new, as it was already present in the life and work of other artists, such as Toulouse-Lautrec or Henry Miller. However, Brassai’s work is particularly powerful because his photographs are able to translate more bluntly the experience of the underground Paris. In addition, the text that accompanies the photos, written by Brassai himself, offers readers not only detailed information about the places and people we see in his work, but also a unique sociological perspective of that time.

This book definitely explored new territories in photography and influenced later generations of photographers. In it, Brassai clearly asserts his intimacy with this secret world. He has even included a self-portrait, smoking and relaxing in a Parisian opium den.  He likes to be part of it and treats his subjects with profound respect.  “The Secret Paris…” is in some ways a vindication of the fringe nocturnal world, which coexisted with more conventional social circles, but was not easily accessible. This approach to photography may have influenced other photographers, who later on exposed and published photos with a more intimate perspective of their own experience in other less conventional social circles. This is the case for example with Christer Stromholm who published “Les amies de Place Blanche” in 1983 – a fabulous book focusing on transsexual “ladies of the night” in Paris in the 1960s. And to some extent, a similar analogy could be made with the work of Nan Goldin, in particular the photobook “The other side”, published in 1993.

Brassai smokingThis copy was inscribed by Brassai himself to Elaine, a famous restaurant owner in UES in NY, where many other celebrity artists used to hang out – Andy Warhol, Richard Avedon, Woody Allen, among others.

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This entry was posted on August 25, 2012 by in Paris.

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