Sunday, July 3, 2011

As Others See Us, Chapter 3

I thought that the end of the Year of the United States last December might be the end of the odd voyeuristic treatment of my homeland by French photographers, but something was going on in the background that I didn't know about: someone was going through the archives of the great Franco-Hungarian photographer Brassaï, and found 110 black and white and 60 color images which he'd shot in the U.S. in 1957 and which had never been shown in public. As digital restorers restored and Flammarion got ready to publish a book of these new photos, curator Agnès de Gouvion Saint-Cyr and Gilles Mora, the artistic director of Montpellier's Pavillon Populaire huddled to create an exhibition worthy of the historic find. It opened a couple of weeks ago, and, it being a sunny Sunday afternoon, I figured I'd wander over there to see what was what.

From what I can gather, Brassaï wasn't really much interested in America, although from time to time Harpers Bazaar or another fashion magazine would print his work, and in 1956, his old buddy from Paris, Henry Miller, got the Museum of Modern Art to show a series Brassaï had just shot of graffiti on the walls of Paris, which was a big hit. After a lifetime of declining to visit, Holiday magazine offered him $3000 for his impressions of America, suggesting he shoot in New York and that most French of American cities, New Orleans, so he gave in, and in 1957, took some cameras to New York and got to work.

And there you go: Brassaï in color! Not that he gave up black and white:

That's about as iconic a shot of Grand Central Station as you'll ever see, (even though the caption at the show says Penn Station).

And yet...

I don't mean to sound cynical, but there is every possibility that there's a good reason that it's taken forty-odd years after the old master's death to find these photos. And that reason is, the overwhelming majority of them just aren't very interesting. Very few images stuck with me after two go-rounds of the show. There are a lot of pictures of black people dressed up, some color shots from a Sunday in Brooklyn, where the subjects, teenagers, mostly, are on their way to or from church, but they have a snapshotty character to them that doesn't go anywhere. The subjects aren't interacting with the photographer, but the photographer doesn't seem to be interacting with the subjects, either. And it's not like Brassaï had never seen black people before. There is a big series from the Easter Parade on 5th Avenue, in black and white (see the picture at the top of the blog) which imparts the shocking news that women wear fancy hats on Easter. Even black women!

And people dress up, even little black girls. There are also some shots of Times Square at night, like this one:

Nice enough, but if someone told you this came from the oeuvre of one of the 20th century's great photographers, you might scratch your head. Only one of the New York pictures of people resonated with me, and that's because Brassaï knew it was an inside joke:

The New Orleans shots are even less distinguished. He apparently took a Mississippi River cruise, where he shot pictures of his fellow passengers and some nicely atmospheric black-and-whites of trees in the swamp. Then he went to Bourbon Street, where he went to a bar and heard an unknown-to-me Columbia Records artist named Earl Williams sing. Four pictures, a series, stand out of the New Orleans group, though. He shot a picture of a well-dressed young black woman talking to a friend, a chef at a restaurant, outside his place of work. As she left to walk up Iberville, Brassaï followed her, and she looked over her shoulder, once with suspicion, a second time with growing comprehension, and finally he posed her next to a lamp-post, smiling most winningly: hey, this French fashion photographer wants my picture!

I should also add that there is one photograph in here which is not from New York, as its caption says, and, if Wikipedia is right and he stopped shooting photos in 1961, not by Brassaï. It's a white wall with a sign over it saying "Boston Parks and Recreation: Graffiti. Each Man His Own Censor." Here's what gives it away: 1) Someone has lightly crossed out "Man" on the sign and written "person"; 2) Someone has stencilled the words NIXON BUGS ME; 3) Someone has done a crude drawing and written "I am free and gay," and it is clear (although it's not a pornographic or even sexual drawing) that the word "gay" doesn't mean "carefree"; 4) Someone has written, next to it, "right on."  The color is wrong, the composition is wrong, and I wonder how this early '70s artifact from someone else in another city snuck into this show. I know nobody at the Pav Pop's going to read this, let alone the people who are publishing the book, but as always you wish they'd run this past a homeboy first.

Anyway, as opposed to the dire, hyperintellectual, embarrassing work from last year's America celebration, this is worth your while for a half-hour some afternoon when you want some air-conditioning and want to see the lovely job someone's done printing and hanging these mostly minor pieces by a major artist.

(Brassaï en Amérique 1957, through October 30, Pavillon Populaire, Esplanade Charles de Gaulle, open Tue-Sun 11am-1pm, 2pm-7pm. Entrance free.)


  1. Ed,

    The pic with sun streaming through windows is actually of Grand Central Station.

    Mike Eisenstadt

  2. Crap, you're right. I'll change the blog post. Can't do anything about the caption at the Pav Pop, though. Boy, these people are sloppy!

  3. The picture of the light streaming through Grand Central is stunning, and it's amazing how they could have labelled it Penn Station.
    And yeah, how could that picture from another photographer after 1961 sneak in there? For me, it's those little nitpicking mysteries that get me interested.


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