From Brassaï to Bing, Stunning 20s and 30s Night Photography

Photographers have long ventured into the night, aiming to illuminate intriguing and elusive nocturnal scenes, but only a few ever mastered the midnight medium. From April to June 2011, New York’s Bruce Silverstein Gallery will show “Night”—an exhibition spotlighting innovative European photographers Brassaï, Ilse Bing, Robert Doisneau, and André Kertész, who together pioneered nighttime photography in the 20s and 30s. Concurrent with the show, Vanity Fair contributing photographer Jonathan Becker, whom Brassaï mentored and befriended, recalls his informative days with “the eye of Paris.”

By Jonathan BeckerAs told to Lenora Jane Estes

Brassaï, La Casque de Cuir, 1932.

In the summer of 1974, I wrote a paper at Harvard University entitled “Brassaï and Surrealism, Brassaï as Surrealist.” The professor, I later discovered, was Brassaï’s acquaintance, and had me forward the paper to the photographer himself. Brassaï wrote back that I had “understood and expressed the spirit in which [he] photographed.” Immediately, I quit school and moved to Paris. So began my relationship with Brassaï, one that endured through the last decade of his life—more a mentored friendship than an assistant position. At that point, he was no longer taking photographs, and was focusing on writing. I helped put together his book The Secret Paris of the 30’s for publication in 1976. It comprised the photographs—mostly night pictures—considered too risqué for publication in 1932’s Paris by Night.

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