PRINT December 1976

Night Light: Brassai and Weegee

THE PHOTOGRAPHS OF BRASSAI AND WEEGEE are like a discovery made independently in two different laboratories by scientists unaware of each other’s research. Their similarity verifies certain things for us. Our contemporary urban sensibility assumes their visions of city life the way physicists assume gravity. Yet gallery exhibitions devoted to each of them this fall have also revealed how individual their work is. For although they both described for us the same phenomenon, the same dark underside of urban civilization, their affections, their methods of working, even their camera equipment turn out to have been remarkably different. In science it may be the sameness of the findings, some universal result of the experiment, that matters more. But in art it is the personality of the experiment itself, the singularity of the description rather than the ubiquity of the phenomenon described. Brassai’s exhibition of 140 prints at the Marlborough Gallery was timed, in September and October, to coincide with American publication of his The Secret Paris of the ’30s. Weegee’s exhibition, which contains 50 prints, began in early November and continues until Christmas at the Marcuse Pfeiffer Gallery. In each exhibition, the person we ultimately uncover lurking in the shadows among the thugs and swells, the prostitutes and their johns, the cops and gawkers, low life and high life, is the photographer himself.

Brassai is now 77 years old. He first came to Paris from Brasso in Transylvania in 1923, to study painting. Although he had seen the work of Atget in the late 1920s and had befriended André Kertesz, he did not come to photography himself until 1929, and even then his thought was not to be a professional photographer, but only to preserve for himself the Paris of the time. By the end of 1932, however, only four years later, he had taken the bulk of what are now his most widely recognized photographs. Two of the series in The Secret Paris of the ’30s were made in 1933 or ’34, but everything else is dated 1931 or ’32. This is not to say that the photographs shown at the Marlborough or in the book are old hat. Many are new, in the sense that they have never been published before. Yet in large measure, the extraordinary power of the Marlborough show resulted from our awareness that an old man had gone back with such care and enthusiasm to work he had done over 40 years ago, at the very beginning of his career. One reason we were able to respond to this work was that the photographer himself could still do so after all this time.

Brassai initially published pictures taken on his nocturnal rambles through Paris in 1933 in a paperback book called Paris de Nuit, which was his first book. Although he has published at least ten books of photographs and memoirs since then, The Secret Paris of the ’30s is the first in which he has returned exclusively to those original photographs. When a friend and I talked with Brassai back in October, he said that he had returned now to work done so long ago partly because he could not publish many of the pictures until recently. Pictures of prostitutes lining up for customers or squatting on a bidet after servicing them simply could not be shown in public when he first took them. But now, with the passing of time, he pointed out, these photographs have become “innocent.” It is really a very eloquent observation, for to our own, publicly raunchy culture, the secretive, bohemian sinning of Paris in the ’30s does look innocent indeed.

For all of that, however, I think Brassai himself would admit that something more than mere opportunity has compelled him to do this new book and exhibition. The license to issue new photographs does not require the extensive review of old ones that he has undertaken, and even some of the “new” ones have been published elsewhere on their own, most notably in Volupté de Paris, which came out in 1952. In an odd way, the revision of Paris de Nuit that The Secret Paris represents might almost make one think of Wordsworth, who also turned at the end of his life to revising the major poem of his youth, The Prelude. Where Wordsworth found innocence in children like Lucy or in the leech-gatherer or the characters in The Prelude itself, Brassai found it in floozies like Bijou and in derelicts. Wordsworth’s memories of the Lake District romanticize all of nature for us, just as Brassai’s photographs of Montmartre romanticize cities. Wordsworth even complained, as Brassai has in The Secret Paris, about a growth in local tourism for which, he apparently did not realize, his own work was largely responsible. And coming back in 1850 to the poem he had first published in 1805, Wordsworth altered subtly the rural landscape there in ways not so different from those in which Brassai has altered the urban landscape of Paris de Nuit.

To go back to Paris de Nuit after studying The Secret Paris affords a real surprise, for the dominant quality of the former at first seems completely absent from the latter. That quality is a very starkly graphic one. Before you have even gotten to the contents of Paris de Nuit, the cover and flyleaves announce a graphic sensibility. They are all shots of the patterns the Parisian cobblestones make at night when the street light hits them. Inside the book this impression of a graphic instinct is confirmed. A crosshatch pattern of shadows from a fence overlaying the Garden of Luxembourg repeats itself in a shot later on of Montmartre Cemetery. A black funnel of night at the end of which some mysteriously luminous background is seen—a building at the end of an alley of trees, the tombstones in Montmartre Cemetery, a street lamp, a brazier, a reflection on the Seine—becomes the pattern of the pictures. The s-curve formed by a curb and gutter is the sole subject of a picture. A semicircular runway on which young women dance over the heads of the audience at a society ball is transformed, on the facing page, into a series of archways at the Opera.

The city that emerges here is a rather deserted one, many of the pictures capturing familiar parks, boulevards and landmarks at an hour when no one is around. Moreover, when people do appear, they are often glimpsed only at a distance and are subordinated to the graphic elements of the scene. Lovers kissing on a park bench blend into the background of a picture whose power comes from the way a strong sidelight picks up the slats of the bench like the keys of a xylophone. A man pissing against a wall, or perhaps carving graffiti, is dwarfed in the far background of a picture by the box-work of pillars and riveted beams on the underside of an elevated train line. Can-can dancers doing high kicks, the feet of girls in two facing rows meeting overhead, are of interest mainly for the pattern their legs make against the herringbone of the parquet floor on which they dance. Even the derelicts whose portraits crowd the pages of The Secret Paris are known in Paris de Nuit, in one of its most beautiful and magical pictures, only by their fire flickering far down an embankment in counterpoint with the lone street lamp on the bridge over their heads.

Though seven of the photographs in Paris de Nuit depict the same scenes obviously on the same nights as pictures in The Secret Paris, none of the pictures in the later book is actually in the earlier one. In general Paris de Nuit differs from The Secret Paris as much in substance as it does in style. Over a third of Paris de Nuit is high-angle shots, many of them panoramic, while only about one-tenth of The Secret Paris was made from a vantage point. The distinct character of Paris de Nuit makes me wonder, in fact, whether many of the photographs in it were not taken during the period 1929–1931, when Brassai was first beginning photography and before he was capable of the cafe and street pictures of 1931–32.

We know that André Kertesz loaned Brassai his first camera in 1929, and indeed a shot of the Eiffel Tower in Paris de Nuit was clearly made that year since the date is emblazoned on it in lights, apparently to celebrate the 40th anniversary of the tower’s construction. Brassai has also said, according to Jean Reissman in Miniature Camera World, that it took him quite awhile to solve the problem of halation from street lamps at close range. In the meantime, he may have concentrated on longer shots, where, he said, the long exposure times required for night photography simply suffused the light. Whether this is so or not, certainly everything done those first couple of years must have been done at the more respectful distance so apparent in Paris de Nuit. In our conversation, Brassai stressed that it took him several years to cultivate the friendship of the criminals and other habitués of Montmartre sufficiently to be permitted to photograph them at all.

All these high-angle cityscapes in Paris de Nuit suggest that Brassai was at that time poised on the brink of the city, ready to descend and become a part of it in a way no photographer had. The two photographs accompanying the first chapter of the reminiscence in The Secret Paris seem to pick up where those high-angle shots in Paris de Nuit leave off, and to suggest that that descent into the city was in effect a kind of descent into hell. Both pictures were made atop Notre Dame, where the suffused light drifts up from below as if born aloft on a sulphurous cloud from brimstone pavements. In the foreground of each photograph a gargoyle in silhouette or a winged demon with horns dominates half the picture space. The lighting coming up from below makes the demon look that much more sinister. But the casual, almost languid way his head is cupped in his hands as he contemplates the city is really comical, and offsets any fear we might have. Indeed, if this is a vision of hell, it is a very attractive and tempting one. It is, in brief, just the sort of vision we might expect from this noctambulant Transylvanian, this countryman of Count Dracula.

From these heights The Secret Paris descends first into the streets, then into the cafes and music halls, and finally into the brothels, private “houses of illusion” and opium parlors. The photographs from the dens of iniquity which have not been seen before are wonderful, as are Brassai’s remembrances of those places. But without taking anything away from this new material, I still feel that the finest of all Brassai’s pictures are the ones he took in the mirror-lined cafes and dance halls of Montmartre. It is appropriate that he should have taken his best photographs halfway between the public settings of Paris de Nuit and the private ones seen for the first time in The Secret Paris. Those cafes were clearly very ambiguous spaces. They opened onto the street and anyone was free to come in; yet if a stranger should happen to do so, he was at once made to feel uneasy and unwelcome. The cafes straddled the private and public extremes of The Secret Paris and combined elements of both. It is therefore right that Brassai should have made his best photographs in them because the quality of those photographs is their power of synthesis—the unity they achieve of sentiment and esthetics, form and content.

The graphic element so strong in Paris de Nuit is not really absent from the cafe pictures. It has just become implicit. It has insinuated itself in the reality of cafe life. The cafe pictures are in fact a marvellous sort of trompe l’oeil in which Brassai’s graphic sense and the self-images of his subjects combine. They combine to become the underpinnings of a vision which at first seems the opposite of graphic and studied, a vision that seems candid and spontaneous. I think most of us take it for granted that these pictures are unposed, and Brassai himself confirmed this to me. He never arranged a scene or instructed his subjects like a movie director, he said, “Never!” In one sense this is obviously quite right, too. The most important insight I gained by talking to Brassai came not from his answer to any question so much as from just being in the presence of the man. It was apparent that his genius for photography lay in his disarming personality, not in any photographic technique. Along with the exceptional peripheral vision his very prominent eyes undoubtedly give him, his energy and charm must have allowed him to catch any subject off guard.

But there were still limitations on his equipment that he must have been obliged to compensate for. The Bergheil Voigtlander camera he used in the ’30s, a 6 x 9 cm plate camera, had to be mounted on a tripod and, under the available light in the cafes, would usually have required exposures of three or four seconds or more, sometimes much more. When such long exposures were not needed, it was only because Brassai had a magnesium-powder flash fired by an assistant. This means that Brassai’s subjects were either keyed to his taking of a picture by his signals to his assistant synchronizing the flash, or else the subjects were asked to hold during a prolonged exposure some attitude into which they had happened. When you look closely at Brassai’s pictures, the telltale signs of these impositions the camera must have made on the scene are apparent. In a brothel the flash gun is reflected in a mirror as an assistant extends it into the scene from the next room. Lovers stand idly at the bar in a lesbian cafe, but the bartender stares into space instead of watching where he is pouring a cocktail, and on closer inspection the cocktail shaker looks empty. A sailor at a table with a girl leers bug-eyed to one side, as if told not to watch the birdie, but not to blink, either, during the long exposure.

In addition, slightly different versions of photographs published over the years make it clear that Brassai often took a series of exposures, frequently with the aid of the flash on each. it cannot then be doubted that his subjects were as a rule aware of the camera and had to accommodate it in some way, performing for the lens even if Brassai himself did not prompt that performance. The reason these contrivances do not register with us in the cafe pictures is that Brassai had found in the habitués of Montmartre the perfect subjects for his peculiar art. For the world Brassai photographed was, after all, that of the apache dancer—a world of poseurs and studied toughness, a world whose inhabitants were trying to wear their emotions on their rolled-up sleeves. Or so we assume, at any rate, and Brassai’s photographs get the benefit of that assumption. We take it for granted that the “natural” behavior of these cafe and dance-hall types was full of artifice, and the photographs themselves trade on our belief in their subjects’ paradoxical behavior. We accept the candor of the attitudes being struck in these photographs because Brassai’s sense of the art of photography is deftly baffled behind his subjects’ sense of the art of living. Such bafflement is what the illusions of all art are for.

This grand illusion which underlay all Brassai’s photographs is also overlaid in many of them by other, more transparent illusions. The latter play across the surface of these photographs in order to distract us from noticing the former, on which our acceptance of the photographs’ candor and authenticity depends. Frequently Brassai turned the limitations of his equipment into his advantage, relying on imperfect camera technology to perfect his own art. For instance, a photograph of two smiling prostitutes abruptly changes its mood when we notice that some crockery on the shelf behind them can be seen right through them. This occurs only because they moved slightly during the long exposure, but the effect is to make their youth, their prettiness and their gaiety into something painfully ephemeral. The same effect is achieved in a photograph of a beautiful carnival dancer named Conchita. As her performance at the middle of the stage effaces itself in a blur of diaphanous costuming and movement, two other dancers on the stage’s edge are, though oafish and unattractive, also in far sharper focus because they are still. Thus will the mystery that Conchita represents endure only as long as she can continue her dance, turning the moment she stops into the reality of the other girls.

Brassai’s real opportunity for such illusion, though, lay in those mirrors omnipresent on the walls of the Parisian cafes and dance halls. It was in his use of them that his sense of composition worked most effectively. Consider the way in which the alternation of moods in the pictures just discussed is also achieved in a photograph taken at “la Boule rouge” in 1933. (Where Brassai’s exhibition occasionally contained successive shots of the same subject, his book does not, with the result that it has about 20 fewer pictures all told. On a couple of occasions, however, unique photographs from the exhibition, such as this one, are not in the book. Here especially, the omission is regrettable.) In this picture a man smirks suggestively at a girl who smiles back at him in obvious enjoyment of his company, but reflected somewhat uncertainly over their heads—perhaps in a mirror and through a plate-glass window as well—appears another, more dour-looking couple who are dancing. It is as if the unfocussed and partly obscured mirror image were anticipating in its dancers’ embrace both the lovemaking the foreground couple will soon get down to, and the disappointment their present expectations will no doubt suffer when they do.

Of course no visual artist since Impressionism, and particularly not an artist who spent his time in Parisian cafes, has been able to ignore the imagery of mirrors. The mirror’s duplication of the real world in an illusion is central to the iconography of modern art. We must keep in mind, too, that it was as a painter Brassai first came to Paris. Arriving in the early ’20s, he felt intensely the aftershocks of Cubism and even the lingering influence of Impressionism itself. His own sense of pictorial space, at least in the cafe pictures, owes as much to the traditions of modern painting playing themselves out around him as it does to any potential that inhered in the camera alone. Brassai became a friend of Picasso’s at just the time that he was taking these cafe pictures, and the influence of Picasso’s mind on Brassai was surely considerable.

In a sense the camera was the ideal instrument to achieve the goal Monet had set for himself, which was to arrest light. Even before the introduction of color film, the camera promised to achieve by mechanical means that spontaneous grasp of the world Impressionism strove for. Yet it seems clear from the beginning of his career that Brassai also wanted to achieve something contrary to this. He wanted to extend this spontaneous, intuitive act of taking pictures, instantanes, in a way that would reconcile it with a more structural, more analytical perception of space. The cafe pictures taken before mirrors do this, too. The figures reflected in the mirrors, whether they are the subjects seated before the mirror or someone out of the camera’s field, always seem to appear from a different perspective. Profiles reflect away from themselves at skew angles, different planes of the composition intersect as if in a labyrinth, and lines of vision disperse in an oblique, controlled geometry just as they might in the most premeditated Cubism.

Brassai’s photographs are, then, the product of a variety of cross-currents—cross-currents between Impressionism and Cubism, painting and photography, analysis and instinct within the photographer himself, oblivion and self-consciousness in his subjects. They are the result of cross-currents between a graphic sense of esthetics and the sentimentality he felt for the people he photographed. In the best of his pictures, moreover, one can almost see all these oppositions writ large. They seem virtually to cross each others’ paths along the photographs’ alternate diagonals, holding each other in a kind of suspension. The photograph in which all these elements perhaps fall together more perfectly than any other is one Brassai took in a cafe on the Place d’Italie. Two lovers huddle at a table in a corner from which mirrors issue in both directions, reflecting not only the lovers but each other. The two figures, which are so intimate in the middle of the frame, are isolated from one another out on the edges. There their reflections are imprisoned in darts of glass that meet point to point. The way they gaze into each other’s eyes in reality is belied by the two reflections, which render their heads parallel rather than facing, and thus suggest solipsism in-stead of love. The woman’s hand moves to her ear in a gesture that is at once both casual and affected. She seems lost in the attentions of her lover, and yet not so lost that she is unmindful of the camera.

The intersection of form and content that occurs in this picture is in fact found everywhere in Brassai’s work during this period. It can be seen not only in the cafe pictures, but also in those made out on the street. There Brassai characteristically placed himself so that a wall forming a street corner was at 45 degrees from him. The flash, masked by the corner, was then fired by his assistant along one diagonal of the picture while the action—the solicitation, necking, prowling or whatever—took place at right angles to the light. That counter-thrust of light or space or mirror imagery that gives form to Brassai’s embrace of Paris night life in these pictures is no accident either. That Brassai was aware of it and purposely created it then, when he took the pictures, is attested now in what he says about them. Although he began photography simply out of the desire to record what he saw in Montmartre and Montparnasse, he never thought of photography itself as an indifferent tool or of his work as mere reportage. In our interview he told me,

I don’t like snapshots. I like to seize hold of things, and the form is very important for this. Of course, all photography presents chances to relate things of interest, but it lacks often a sense of form. Form is very important not only in order to create art, but because only through form can the image enter into our memory. It’s like the aerodynamics of a car, don’t you see? For me, form is the only criterion of a good photograph. One doesn’t forget such a photograph and wants to see it again.

It is hard to imagine a better apology than this for the synthesis, the unity, that the cafe pictures achieve. They have indeed entered into our memory, and for just the reason Brassai said. Nevertheless, in recent years Brassai seems to have moved even further away from the sensibility of Paris de Nuit and toward a kind of naturalism in his valuing of his photographs. This is noticeable in the way he has come to crop certain of his most widely published pictures. The graphic tendency of Paris de Nuit, which was subsumed as form in the cafe pictures, is now consumed away altogether in his recropping of some of those pictures. This seems especially significant in two photographs made in 1932 at the Bal des Quatre Saisons.

The first of these is perhaps Brassai’s most famous photograph and depicts two lovers who are turned sullenly away from each other, just having had an argument. In the original version a woman’s face, unfocussed but strikingly like the face of the female lover, is reflected in the mirror over the couple’s heads. A little, star-shaped cleat holding the mirror in place appears where the reflected face’s eye should be, and this disfigurement turns the mirror image into a kind of fantasy that might be going on right at this moment in the man’s mind. (An eye that is masked or blinded from the camera is a constant motif in Brassai’s photographs.) Crucial as that face in the mirror is to the coherence of the picture, however, Brassai has cropped it out for years now. The whole photograph appears in the Focal Press edition of Brassai’s work done in London of 1949, but in the 1952 Paris edition, and in each subsequent publication of the picture Brassai could control, including The Secret Paris, the picture has been cropped.

When I asked Brassai about the cropping of this photo and the other one from the Bal des Quatre Saisons, he claimed to be surprised, as if he had never really noticed it before. “You know my photographs better than I,” he declared with playful mockery in his voice. In the other picture at the Bal de Quatre Saisons, a glum-looking man sits flanked by two women before a mirror in which there appears another man, who is smiling, also flanked by two women. The photograph was originally taken in a horizontal format and included two large, empty areas in the upper left and lower right portions—one, the wall, is light in tone, while the other, the seat cushion, is nearly black. Precisely because nothing in the arrangement of the figures necessitates the inclusion of these empty areas, the fact that they were included seems significant. They are an intentional part of the composition.

Yet in The Secret Paris Brassai cropped the picture vertically, eliminating those areas (and one other extraneous figure). When I pointed this out, his response was, as he indicated the two groups of figures, “The eye should fall here, and it is necessary not to chase after things which distract it.” But I do not agree. The recropping eliminates one of those opposing diagonals and so relaxes the tension its contrast between light and dark introduced. Form and feeling almost literally travel along the alternate diagonals in this photo because of the way the empty spaces oppose the clusters of smiling, frowning people. Taking away those spaces, therefore, takes away the form itself to too great an extent. When the photograph is horizontal, we seem to be farther away from the figures, and this gives us a little perspective on their experiences. That diagonal of empty spaces holds back the emotion a bit. It holds the melodrama in check, and this is the reason it is necessary.

The reason that Brassai has eliminated it anyway may have something to do with growing old. His own motives for going over all those pictures from the ’30s again may not be so different from the motives of many who went to his exhibition and read the text of his book. That is, Brassai too may be moved by simple nostalgia, which usually prefers sentiment unmitigated by art. But there is no need to trivialize the changes that may have occurred over the years in Brassai’s attitude toward his work. It is fair to say, rather, that his sense of his work has just become more human as time passed.

Photographers both great and ordinary often begin with the kind of heavily graphic sensibility seen in Paris de Nuit. Seeing the world as an abstract pattern rather than a human comedy excuses one from having to confront people at close range. But as time goes on, and the photographer becomes both deft and curious enough to overcome his initial standoffishness, he may also pay less attention to esthetics. In Brassai’s best work, I have said, the esthetics do not disappear; they are merely assumed and become implicit. But it is understandable, particularly in old age, that an artist should ultimately want to concentrate on humanity, on the feeling alone, and exclude all else. This is what happened to Wordsworth too, when he revised The Prelude almost half a century after first publishing it. The second version of the poem is less concerned with the grand design of Nature, and more concerned with the purely human pleasures of memory. Perhaps it is only natural that Brassai’s revision of his prelude should be the same.

The coincidental similarities between Brassai’s career and Weegee’s seem almost uncanny. For example, both men were immigrants to the countries in which they made their reputations, and both took one-word pseudonyms. Weegee was born less than 12 months after Brassai; and when he came to New York from his native Austria at the age of ten, he was still Arthur Fellig. He was given the name Weegee in the newspaper business by fellow reporters who speculated he must have a ouija board to be able to guess so well where the news would break. More important, both photographers did their best work on mean streets. “I was friend and confidante to them all. The bookies, madams, gamblers, callgirls, pimps, con men, burglars and jewel fences . . . ” Weegee told us in his 1961 autobiography Weegee by Weegee, and it could almost have been Brassai talking. It is not only the personnel that is often the same in Weegee’s pictures, but the very atmosphere of the city.

For one thing, Weegee was capable of seeing a kind of graphic beauty in the city like that in Paris de Nuit. In one picture a fretwork of light filters through the El onto the street below, producing an effect much like that the fence shadows make in Brassai’s Montmartre Cemetery or Luxembourg Garden. In another picture, just the bottle tops and case edges pick up the light in a restaurant wine cellar the way tramlines, paving stones or the slats in the park bench often do in Brassai’s early pictures. A photograph of a charwoman far in the distance of a darkened office building lobby even has that same conjured look as Brassai’s of the derelicts huddled around their fire under a bridge. This last picture of Weegee’s is especially Brassai-like in its lighting, for the woman has been lit by a flash or photo-flood blinded from the camera behind a marble partition much as a light source might be behind the corner of a building in a Brassai picture.

Flash side-lighting of this sort, which characterizes so many Brassai pictures, is what Weegee called “Rembrandt light.” Besides that picture made in the office-building lobby, we see it in a portrait Weegee took of a delivery man making his dawn rounds carrying great loops of bagels, or in the opening picture of Weegee’s 1945 collection of his work, Naked City. In this picture baled stacks of newspapers lie on the sidewalk casting long shadows and waiting for some vendor to arrive at his stand in the morning. We might almost imagine, if the stacks were people instead, that we are looking at one of those assemblages of cafe-goers Brassai mustered out in the street for a group shot at closing time. Beyond any pictorial prettiness, what this and many other Weegee photos share with Brassai’s work is a feeling of desolation. The streets photographed by both men are almost always largely deserted.

More than a time, night is a place in both men’s work. The settings in their pictures are places that are familiar to us by day, and at the same time, transformed by darkness, they are some place we have never seen before. The people who inhabit this landscape are similarly ambiguous. The facades of the shops in the background, blank and monolithic in the eery, electric flash, give us the feeling that the one or two figures who are on the street have been locked out of this society. They are classic outsiders, wanderers, transients, figures of alienation and exclusion. Yet in night and darkness, these people are also obviously at home. They are like the troops in some guerilla war who are never seen by day, but “own” the night. In Weegee’s pictures, as in Brassai’s, the derelicts sleeping on park benches and under hovels appear to us as the dead left behind in no man’s land after the day’s fighting.

For Weegee and Brassai alike, the only refuge from the night, the only sanctuary, was in the cafes and bars. Weegee’s Montmartre was the Bowery, and his Bal de Quatre Saisons was a dive called Sammy’s. Like Brassai, Weegee went to bars, costume balls, private parties. As a counterpart to Brassai pictures from an opium den, there is even a set of Weegee photos taken at a dope and jam session and published in his 1946 collection, Weegee’s People. And the atmosphere in Weegee’s haunts was always as crowded, convivial and erotic as in Brassai’s. Instead of wine glasses, there are beer bottles on the rather grubby table around which four men sing, but the ambience is the same as in Brassai’s pictures. Flirtations, insults and posturings fly through the air. In one photograph, a pair of derelicts smooches passionately in the corner of a booth at Sammy’s, mimicking in their shabbiness the rather elegant lovemaking going on in the mirrored corner in that Brassai photo. In yet another Weegee photograph, an even more striking parallel with Brassai’s cafe pictures occurs. A man and woman sitting adjacent to one another at a supper-club table are reflected, as it were, in the gestures of another couple on the table’s opposite side. The effect is not unlike that when a Brassai photo catches in a mirror not the subjects of the picture themselves, but some other cafe-goers whose activities at that moment happen to mock the subjects’.

In addition to these innumerable coincidences between the two photographers’ work, however, there are telling differences as well, and the differences are in the end perhaps more significant than the similarities. Although both men photographed the night world of the city, the underworld, they had very different relationships with that world. Brassai found life there enjoyable. Weegee found it laughable. As a result there is in Weegee’s photographs a cruelty not found in Brassai’s. Weegee’s work looks forward to Arbus’ as much as it looks back to Brassai’s. While the world Brassai photographed was one of sin and pleasure, that Weegee photographed was one of crime and pain. Brassai’s principal subjects were the criminals. Weegee’s were the victims. Even when Weegee photographed a gangster, it was almost always because the man had himself been arrested or shot. In Weegee’s photographs the violence of society is all explicit. He photographed even the good citizens at moments of lawlessness. In Brassai’s photographs the violence remains only implicit. He photographed the outlaws, but caught them at moments of high sociability. An important difference in the quality of the two men’s work is that Brassai’s preserves the duality where Weegee’s does not. Brassai’s photographs give us the impression that even in the lower depths, life is paradoxical and complexly human. Weegee’s often gives us the opposite feeling that even among the middle classes, society is merely brutal.

To a certain extent this difference may result from the fact that Brassai really knew the people he photographed, and Weegee did not. Weegee grew up in a poor neighborhood on the Lower East Side, and according to Weegee by Weegee, he spent a period living in flophouses on the Bowery too. Yet his photography of tenement dwellers and bums is quite pitiless, as if he had no more feeling for them than for the gangland bosses he photographed. In Naked City he told us, “I cried when I took this,” referring to a picture of two women watching relatives burn to death in a fire. But it is hard for us to believe Weegee did much crying. His pictures turn catastrophe to comedy too easily. As an elderly couple watches another fire burn down their home, the woman is caught so goggle-eyed by the camera that she and her husband are ludicrous. And of course there are various pictures of the gawking, gaping crowds that collected at murder scenes. Everybody—the murderer, the corpse, the bystander alike—was just part of the freak show. As opposed to Brassai, who took two years getting to know his subjects before even beginning to photograph them, Weegee knew none of his. He did not want to know them. Who would?

To give him his due, though, Weegee may well have represented the lives of his subjects and personality of his city as accurately as Brassai did his. Compared to Paris, New York is a tough, graceless town. Brassai’s subjects were self-prepossessing and had a sense of their own style that was, if anything, overdeveloped. The archetypal Brassai subject was Bijou, and so his premeditated, carefully composed photography does his subjects justice. But if Weegee valued his subjects at all, he valued them because they were such schlepps and schlemiels. His subjects often had no sense of style, no self-image to project, nor was their behavior calculated before the camera in the way Brassai’s subjects must have been. If Weegee’s photos seem less artful than Brassai’s, perhaps, it is just because his subjects’ lives had less artifice in them.

Yet at the same time, the human nature of Weegee’s subjects only partially accounts for the impromptu and informal character of his photography. Equally important are the technical differences between his equipment and Brassai’s. Beginning work a few years after Brassai, Weegee had available to him, instead of flash powder, the much brighter, faster, more maneuverable flash bulb. His camera was the Speed Graphic, a plate camera with a 4 x 5" format that was the standard press model of the day. But most important of all, with its automatic synchronization for the flash, this camera allowed Weegee to photograph always at 1/200th of a second—somewhere between one and four hundred times faster than Brassai could usually work.

make only one exposure after having left the camera set up before a subject for hours. But where his photography is a form of meditation on life, Weegee’s is a gut reaction to it. Brassai told me that he has purposely waited years before publishing many of his photographs in order to let time select which were the best ones. But Weegee felt that, as he explained in Weegee by Weegee, “A picture is like a it while it’s hot.” Weegee worked at such a frenetic, was a camera that by its very nature demanded one shoot without thinking, working by instinct rather than intellection. The work methods and indeed the whole career of each photographer seems to have been geared to the speed at which his shutter operated.

Brassai literally studied and composed his subjects for two years before he pushed the shutter release on his camera. On any given night, he told me, he might education Brassai enjoyed, it is not surprising that Weegee’s was a less refined (or at least less bourgeois) sensibility. But even had his own tastes not prompted him to a cruder sort of picture than Brassai took, Weegee’s equipment would have done so. Being fast enough to take completely candid, spontaneous pictures, the Speed Graphic inevitably produced a less formed, more inchoate vision of life. It

The consequence of this technological advance was, ironically, to make Weegee much more of a primitive than Brassai was. To be sure, Weegee was anyway, by both inclination and background, a more primitive man than Brassai, whose father had been a university professor and who was himself part of the most influential Parisian cultural circles of his day. Since Weegee had no access to the sort of esthetic indiscriminate rate that he at one point put himself right out of business by flooding his market. He claimed to have worn out ten Speed Graphics during the years 1935–45, and at last one editor told him, “You’ve been peddling the same pictures to us now for six years, and, for all I know, it’s the same dead gangster and the same gray fedora lying on the sidewalk.” “I had so many unsold murder pictures lying around my room,” Weegee lamented, “I felt as if I were renting out a wing of the City Morgue.”

Because of the uncomposed photograph that resulted from the speed at which both Weegee and his camera worked, there is in Weegee’s pictures none of that dialectic Brassai gave us. Despite being “action” pictures when Weegee took them, they now seem, though certainly not lifeless, at least quieter than Brassai’s pictures. The dialectic that is contained in the frame itself in Brassai’s pictures seems to exist in Weegee’s photography only in a relationship that we sense existed outside the frame, between the photographer and his subject. Weegee’s pictures are only indications of something that happened, not, like Brassai’s, the essence of it. They are the by-product of an event rather than the event itself. Again, this is not to say that Weegee’s photos have lost all their urgency or excitement. It is only to say that we must look elsewhere for them from where we look in Brassai’s work. While Brassai’s pictures are best where the greatest sympathy for the subject is achieved, Weegee’s now look best where the greatest antipathy appears to have existed. The very qualities that are the most distressing in his work—his aggressiveness and disregard for the feeling of his subjects—are also his most durable qualities. If a certain antagonism for his subjects is apparent everywhere in his work, the work is at its finest when that antagonism was at its strongest. This very often means when he was photographing the rich.

There are relatively few of these pictures (Weegee worked for a time at Vogue, of all places). But the show at the Marcuse Pfeiffer Gallery is especially well endowed with them, containing at least a half dozen classic ones. Perhaps because they are almost the only photos not of traumatic events, these pictures of cafe society achieve a subtlety of perception not seen elsewhere in Weegee’s work; and they do so without sacrificing that quality of an action caught on the wing which the Speed Graphic made possible. It seems fairly clear, in fact, that Weegee was responding to only two elements of the action in each picture: the movements of hands and eyes. All photographers tend to concentrate on the eyes of a subject because they are the most expressive feature and it is on them that the focus should be sharpest. But as the lens fixed the eyes in these pictures, the flash fixed the hands, giving them an exceptional presence in the frame because they were the lightest or most prominent part of the body.

Thus, for instance, as three people in evening dress crowd around a table at a party, two downcast glances and one blank stare betray any possibility of enjoyment or energy. The looks reveal the experience, and the people, to be utterly vacuous. And at just this moment, the man’s hand rises toward his chest. The motion seems ever so febrile, the veins in his hand thrown into relief under translucent skin by the falling off of the blue light from the flash. He is listlessly reaching for—what else?—his wallet. It is a consummate gesture of money and power. In another picture a dead-level gaze seems to have very much the same message in it. A chauffeur helps a dowager out of her limousine. But as she and her husband look to the clumsy business of getting her disembarked, the chauffeur, whose right arm is doing all the work, looks straight ahead. He averts his eyes, not wanting to embarrass his mistress in her discomfiture—not daring to gaze on her presence. In his left hand, which holds aloft an umbrella, he is gripping his right glove, as if he were surreptitiously congratulating himself; and thus he leaves the right hand, offered in support to the old woman, abjectly naked. The imperiousness suggested by the eyes and hand in the first picture is confirmed by the servility of those features in this second one.

In perhaps the best of these pictures in the show, a young woman arches her eyebrows, tilts her head to one side, fingers her necklace with divine nonchalance and stares down the camera. But what undermines the figure she is trying to cut, besides the extravagance with which she does it, is the appearance on the dance floor just behind her of a man whose puffy, octopus eye leers over his partner’s shoulder. In contrast to the carefully crooked wrist and hand fondling the necklace, his ham hand encircles his partner’s waist and, with fingers splayed, menacingly grabs our attention by its stark contrast against the back of a black dress. All the pretension and elegance the woman in the foreground summons for the occasion by her glance and gesture are at once destroyed by the dissipated lechery of the man’s hand and eye in the background.

The difference between the conflict we see here and one we might encounter in a Brassai cafe picture is that Weegee’s photo is not held together by any kind of form. An accident snatched from a truly random flow of events, it is not contained by the frame in the same way that Brassai’s observations are. Perhaps the crucial difference between Brassai’s photographs and Weegee’s is that the forces at work in Brassai’s are centripetal, while those in Weegee’s are centrifugal. Brassai’s show how people fit into their environment. His pictures are gravitational, pulling everything in them together, achieving an organic unity. Weegee’s show how people do not fit into their environment. His pictures are explosive, blowing what is in them apart and achieving a kind of chaos.

To put the matter another way, we might say that where Brassai’s photographs work by their powers of association, Weegee’s work by dissociation—by the powers of incongruity and discontinuity. What makes them great is the way things in them do not go together. This quality is the one that Weegee’s pictures of the rich share with his best work in other settings. Characters from all walks of life clash the way that the man in the background and the woman in the foreground do in the picture last discussed above, or the way that the two society matrons and the charwoman do in Weegee’s most famous picture, The Critic. In one of the pictures in the Marcuse Pfeiffer show, right-winger Joe McWilliams, sporting bow tie and silk socks, is a ludicrously dandy figure on the seat of a Conestoga wagon. McWilliams has about him a nonchalant but false air of authority, like that of a hijacker sitting in the cockpit of a plane. McWilliams has so clearly misappropriated the rough pioneer values for which the wagon stands. In another picture, a giant hand reaches at dawn for a cab in which the cabby waits for the light to change, seemingly unaware that he is about to be the victim of the ultimate mugger.

Again, it is often the craziness of the eyes in a picture that makes it fly apart for us this way. In a picture where men in business suits stand around open-mouthed, seeming to holler, there is something disconcerting that we cannot quite put our finger on. That several of them hold swords is part of it, but more important is the fact that each man is looking in a different direction. Can each be having the same reaction to a different event? It makes no sense, which is its delight. In a photo of a crowd on a Brooklyn street gawking at something outside the frame, the effect of the eyes—some anguished, some inquisitive, some horrified, some turned-on—is similar. A photograph like this at last breaks down whatever compunctions we have had about Weegee’s work. It has been made in a relentless, remorseless way, but perhaps not, after all, a truly heartless one. There is something almost playful about it. We realize that the people Weegee photographed were for him not finally beasts, but only screwballs. There are many times when this does not come across in the photographs, when the sensibility at work here fails so that the picture makes us cringe. But even at these moments, when Weegee allowed us to lose sight of what a bunch of characters he thought the human race to be, we usually come away from the photograph with an intact sense of what a character Weegee was.

All photography of the sort Weegee and Brassai did is in essence an act of anticipation. In the most immediate sense, it is knowing when to push the shutter release—summoning all your powers of concentration in order to stay ahead of events by that crucial second, or 1/200th of a second. For Weegee, in another sense that almost caricatures this first one, photography was also an act of prophecy. He got his nickname from having a sixth sense for news, and a whole chapter of Naked City is called “Psychic Photography.” There are before and after pictures of a street corner in Chinatown that blew up while Weegee stood there waiting for something to happen. In another picture, Weegee got a burglar being caught in the act by the cops. In some others, a really pathetic series of the kind only Weegee could make, a derelict staggers to his feet from the sidewalk, is run down by a car when he wanders out in the street, and receives the last rites from a priest who happens by. At the beginning of the chapter in Naked City entitled “Murders,” Weegee boasted, “Some day I’ll follow one of these guys with a ’pearl gray hat,’ have my camera all set and get the actual killing. . . . . ”

For Brassai photography has also required anticipation in still another, even more remarkable sense. It has required him to wait patiently for photographs to come into their own as art. During my interview with him he told with great relish a story that appears in his Picasso and Company. One day Picasso saw some of Brassai’s drawings and declared that they were a gold mine Brassai should not neglect in order to do photography, which was a salt mine by comparison. Brassai’s reply was that he felt the photographs were the true gold mine. Having waited all these years for the recognition he was sure would come—to be exhibited and sold in an art gallery like Marlborough, for instance—Brassai could not be more delighted. He loves the excitement publication of The Secret Paris has created. On more than one occasion he went up to Marlborough while his exhibition was on and wandered among his pictures, waiting for some-one to recognize him, for a crowd to form, for the enormous satisfaction of leading an impromptu band of admirers on a gallery tour of his own.

When I spoke to Brassai at that time, he told me,

One begins to understand that painting is not our means of expression. It is a medium that comes from the past. Now there are new means of expression. There is television. There is the cinema, the film, And one begins to understand that it is the photographic image which is the means of expression of our century.

On the evidence of his own work, he may well be right. In a way Weegee’s pictures, erratic as they are, may seem the more contemporary. It is his eccentric sense of timing and of humor that seems to precede most profoundly the work of the best recent street photographers—Lee Friedlander, Garry Winogrand, Tod Papageorge, Joel Meyerowitz. Yet Brassai’s precedent is still as keenly felt too. In these later photographers’ sense of form—of the picture as a self-contained event in its own right, a work of art—Brassai’s influence undeniably continues as well. His pictures hold out to today’s photographers a formal ideal by which a potential of photography only inchoate in Weegee’s work might yet be realized.

Colin L. Westerbeck, Jr. is the film critic of Commonweal.

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