Bars, brothels and the bals-musette…

THE SECRET PARIS OF THE 30S, by Braissaï, English translation published in 1976 (original Le Paris secret des années 30)

Bookcase 7, shelf 2, book 22

From one classic to another, and I was tempted to say that they couldn’t be more different – except that the night is a central feature of both. Oh, all right; they couldn’t be more different. This book is also a legend, though, an inspiration for generations of photographers and stylists (If you know The September Issue, the documentary about Vogue magazine, you’ll know that Grace Coddington uses it to spark a series of fashion shots).

Brassaï (it’s a nom de plume derived from his birthplace, now Brasov; he was actually Gulya Halasz) was a Hungarian immigrant in Paris, whose love of photography developed from his love of the city at night – and his first book, Paris de Nuit, was published in 1933. It was a great success…

But one of the reasons for the success of this particular title is the text. Some photographers can write; some cannot – and Brassaï falls wholeheartedly into the first category. His text combines perfectly with the images, creating a complete picture of a vanished world. This isn’t surprising, really; he actually started as a writer who used his photographs to illustrate articles. Brassaï’s photographs are much more than illustrations, though. They stand alone, a highly atmospheric testimony to a world which disappeared not long after they were taken.

Brassaï loved the hidden side of the city, and its more secretive inhabitants. These might be people whose occupation was purely nocturnal, such as the cesspool cleaners above, or those who chose to live mostly by night, the prostitutes, petty criminals and barflies. His concise and misleading reputation is as a photographer of streetwalkers, but these shots are a relatively small section of his work. Of course they’re in here; they were an essential part of the nocturnal city which he documents. And so are the madams…

This is the madam of Suzy,

‘…a small brothel in the Quartier Latin, on the Rue Grégoire des Tours. At night, with its coloured windows, it looked like a chapel lit up for midnight mass … At Suzy, a bell went off as the client opened the door, and he found himself in a kind of booth, as though he had gone to vote. The madam appeared with a wide, salacious grin. She would clap her hands and call out, “Choosing time, ladies!”…’

There was another side to her (but of course), and Brassaï came to know her better and was invited to spend an evening behind the scenes, celebrating her saint’s day. She also had a little salon, quite apart from the ‘work rooms’ upstairs ‘for good clients who just want to drink some champagne with the girls’…

That conforms to the shorthand image of Brassaï’s work, but there’s much more to it. His portraits of individuals are wonderful: people like La Môme Bijou, an extraordinary bejewelled drinker; the beggar in his top hat, and again with his cat Doudou; the cross-dressing drinkers at Le Monocle… There are photographs taken in an opium den, behind the scenes at the Folies-Bergère, at the Foire du Trône, in gay bars and at the notorious artists’ balls. This was a largely undocumented Paris, well known to its habituées but brought to a much wider audience by Brassaï.

Generally, he worked alone. He did run into problems but not as many as might have been anticipated, given that at the time ‘no one had heard of night photography’. He expresses surprise both at how many doors were opened to him, and at not being shot. The police hauled him off for questioning only three times: they ‘refused to believe that anyone might want to take pictures by the canal at three a.m., and were more inclined to think I had been dumping a body into the greenish water.’ He eventually took to carrying some finished photographs to prove the truth of his tale should it prove necessary.

And through all the book runs an elegiac tone, most apparent in the more general shots of the city in the dark. From up on one of the towers of Notre-Dame, a gargoyle watches over the night-time city; crowds on the terasse of a brightly lit cafe are indistinguishable as individuals from Brassaï’s viewpoint high in the building opposite, and a cop and passerby exchange words under a street light.

Even at the time the photographs were originally taken, there was an air of teetering on the edge of an abyss. Away from the night-time streets, and frequently on them, this was a world of uncertainty and inflation, of widely polarised political opinions and the build up to the Spanish Civil War. Plus, of course, the Occupation – often referred to as ‘les années noires’, the dark years – was just around the corner…

I’m so glad the roll of the dice picked this book for me to read. I’d not looked at it for a while, and it was like running into an old friend.

Someone said to me that I seemed to enjoy all the books the dice selected for me, and questioned whether or not I’d just been picking my favourites. No, I haven’t, but of course the dice have been ‘selecting’ books I like. They’ve already been pre-selected. Anything I don’t like goes straight to Oxfam; not much chance of that happening to this one. Now that would be an exercise of faith, reading only from local charity shops. Hmm…

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