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Gyula Halász was born in Brassó (Brasov), in south-east Transylvania, Austria-Hungary (today in Romania), to a Hungarian father and an Armenian mother. He is sometimes incorrectly described as Jewish. At age three, his family moved to live in Paris, France for a year, while his father, a Professor of Literature, taught at the Sorbonne. As a young man, Gyula Halász studied painting and sculpture at the Academy of Fine Arts in Budapest, before joining a cavalry regiment of the Austro-Hungarian army, where he served until the end of the First World War. In 1920 Halász went to Berlin, where he worked as a journalist and studied at the Berlin-Charlottenburg Academy of Fine Arts.
In 1924 he moved to Paris where he would live the rest of his life. In order to learn the French language, he began teaching himself by reading the works of Marcel Proust. Living amongst the huge gathering of artists in the Montparnasse Quarter, he took a job as a journalist. He soon became friends with Henry Miller, Léon-Paul Fargue, and the poet Jacques Prévert.
Gyula Halász's job and his love of the city, whose streets he often wandered late at night, led to photography. He later wrote that photography allowed him to seize the Paris night and the beauty of the streets and gardens, in rain and mist. Using the name of his birthplace, Gyula Halász went by the pseudonym "Brassaï," which means "from Brasso." As Brassaï, he captured the essence of the city in his photographs, publishing his first book of photographs in 1933 titled Paris de nuit ("Paris by Night").
His efforts met with great success, resulting in his being called "the eye of Paris" in an essay by his friend Henry Miller. In addition to photos of the seedier side of Paris, he also provided scenes from the life of the city's high society, its intellectuals, its ballet, and the grand operas. He photographed many of his great artist friends, including Salvador Dalí, Pablo Picasso, Henri Matisse, Alberto Giacometti, plus many of the prominent writers of his time such as Jean Genet, Henri Michaux and others.
Brassaï's photographs brought him international fame leading to a one-man show in the United States at the George Eastman House in Rochester, New York; the Art Institute in Chicago, Illinois; and at New York City's Museum of Modern Art.
In 1956, his film, Tant qu'il y aura des bêtes, won the "Most Original Film" award at the Cannes Film Festival, and in 1974 he was made Knight of the Order of Arts and Letters and given the Legion of Honor in 1976. Two years later, in 1978, he won the first "Grand Prix National de la Photographie" in Paris.
As well as a photographer, Brassaï was the author of seventeen books and numerous articles, including the 1948 novel Histoire de Marie, which was published with an introduction by Henry Miller. His Letters to My Parents and Conversations with Picasso, have been translated into English and published by the University of Chicago Press.
After 1961, when he stopped taking photographs, Brassaï concentrated his considerable energy on sculpting in stone and bronze. Several tapestries were made from his designs based on his photographs of graffiti.
Gyula Halász died on July 8, 1984 in Èze, Alpes-Maritimes, in the south of France and was interred in the Cimetière du Montparnasse in Paris.
In 2000, an exhibition of some 450 works by Brassaï was organized with the help of his widow, Gilberte at the Centre Georges Pompidou in Paris.
"When you meet the man you see at once that he is equipped with no ordinary eyes," comments writer Henry Miller on French photographer Brassai. And the sharpness of vision and depth of insight noted by Miller are revealed in Brassai’s lifelong photographic exploration of Paris—its people, places, and things.
Although Brassai was a leading member of the French "school" of photography, he was born Jules Halasz in Brasov, Hungary. (He takes his pseudonym from his birthplace.) Originally Brassai had an aversion to photography. As a young man, he studied painting and sculpture in the Academy of Fine Arts in Budapest. Later he became a journalist, coming to Paris in 1918. There he fell in love with the city and with the camera.
Brassai sees Paris as a subject of infinite grandeur, his photographs providing a sensitive and often extremely dramatic exploration of its people, its resplendent avenues, and endlessly intriguing byways. Brassai’s reputation was established with the publication of his first book, Paris at Night, now a modern classic. Some of the pictures in this book are sharply defined, brilliantly lit, while others capture the mistiness of rainy nights. Still others concentrate on the shadowy life of the underworld.
As Brassai created more and more pictures of Parisian life, his fame became international. His pictures of "Graffiti" (writings and drawings scribbled by countless individuals on the crumbling walls of buildings) were the subject of his one - man show at New York’s Museum of Modern Art. Brassai has indicated something of his reason for making these pictures in the following statement: "the thing that is magnificent about photography is that it can produce images that incite emotion based on the subject matter alone."
Brassai has also had one-man shows in the Biblioth-Que Nationale in Paris, the George Eastman House in Rochester, and the Art Institute in Chicago. His work has been included in many international exhibits and published in many magazines. He was the last person to receive England’s P. H. Emerson Award, from Emerson himself. And it is interesting to note that Brassal has kept up his work in such other arts as drawing, poetry, and sculpture. Albums of his drawings and a volume of poetry, Les Pro pos de Marie, have been published, and recently he had a one-man show of 50 sculptures in Paris.
Along with other great contemporary artists—Picasso, Moore, Calder, and Noguchi, Brassai had the rare honor of being asked to create a 23 X 10 foot mural for the UNESCO palace in Paris. Brassai has said many useful things about photography; one of the most valuable is the following statement: "We should try, without creasing to tear ourselves constantly by leaving our subjects and even photography itself from time to time, in order that we may come back to them with reawakened zest, with the virginal eye. That is the most precious thing we can possess".
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