In Lovers at the Chameleon Club, Paris 1932, Francine Prose bases the character Gabor Tsenyi on real life photographer Gyula Halász. Known by the pseudonym Brassai, Halasz was born in 1899 in the Transylvanian (later Hungary, now Romania) city of Brasso. His father was a university professor of French literature and their family spent some time living in France, where Brassai eventually emigrated in the 1920s in order to pursue a career as a journalist. He started taking photos as a way to supplement his freelance income.
While in Paris he lived in the famous Montparnasse quarter among such bohemian greats as Henry Miller, Pablo Picasso, Salvador Dali and Jean Genet. He eventually began to devote himself entirely to photography and particularly to photographing Paris's seamier nightlife. He was enraptured with the play of light and dark in the clubs and on the streets of the city. Because he started out with equipment that was outdated maybe even because it was so outdated he was forced to develop his own technique. According to biographers he had to blend into the background to the extent that his subjects forgot he was present. There, in the semi darkness, he would lurk until the shot appeared in his lens, then in a burst of light and acrid smoke he would catch the most atmospheric photos of his day. The result was a distinctive avant garde style that set itself apart from the trends of his time.
He said, "Photography in our time leaves us with a grave responsibility. While we are playing in our studios with broken flowerpots, oranges, nude studies and still lifes, one day we know that we will be brought to account: life is passing before our eyes without our ever having seen a thing."
In addition to his daring photos of prostitutes, lesbians, transvestites and street cleaners, he had connections among French aristocracy and literati whom he also photographed in his signature style. He remained in Paris during World War II but, because work as a photographer was difficult, he turned his skills to drawing, painting and sculpture. His photographic career resumed after the War and continued into the late 1960s.
Brassai received numerous awards and recognitions for his work and published several books in his lifetime, including collections of his photos and his recollections of conversations with friend Pablo Picasso. He also produced a movie in the 1950s. Brassai died in 1984 and is buried in Paris in the Montparnasse Cemetery.
Many of Brassai's photographs can be found at Atget Photography.
Self-Portrait of Brassai.
This article was originally published in May 2014, and has been updated for the
May 2015 paperback release.
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