Brassaï: No Ordinary Eyes by Alain Sayag & Annick Lionel-Marie; Negrophilia: Avant-Garde Paris and Black Culture in the 1920s by Petrine Archer-Straw - review by Patrick O'Connor

Patrick O'Connor

Paris Black and White

Brassaï: No Ordinary Eyes


Thames & Hudson 320pp £48 order from our bookshop

Negrophilia: Avant-Garde Paris and Black Culture in the 1920s


Thames & Hudson 200pp £14.95 order from our bookshop

If colour photography had been perfected earlier, we would now have a quite different notion of what Paris was like in the 1920s. The clothes, the decor, the make-up and street-life must have been a riot of brilliant fauve contrasts. When Josephine Baker stepped on the stage in Paris for the first time in 1925, part of the sensation she created was due to the contrast between her beautiful black body and the pink and gold costume of feathers and beads that she was wearing. No matter how many times we may read about this, and even if one looks at the paintings and lithographs of the time, what is fixed in the communal memory is still the black-and-white images that both of these books use.

Gyula Halász, who was to adopt the nom de guerre of Brassaï, arrived from Transylvania, via Berlin, in 1924. While still learning French he fell in with a group of Hungarian ex-pats, among them André Kertész, Vincent Korda and Lajos Tihanyi, and through them he began to meet all the foremost artists working in Paris at the time, everyone who was anyone, from Picasso and Le Corbusier to Jacques Prévert and Henri Langlois. In his first book, Paris de nuit, Brassaï published a series of photographs which, while influenced by Atget, whose work he had admired, took everyday objects and images of workers, industry and back-street life, and created from them a mood of melancholy and tension which was to inspire many imitators and chroniclers.

Henry Miller arrived in Paris the year Brassaï’s book was published, and wrote: ‘Deprived of the miracle of color, registering everything in degrees of black and white, Brassaï nevertheless seems to convey by the purity and quality of his tones all the effects of sunlight, and even more impressively the

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