Whenever I’m socialising with friends, those who are a little knowledgeable about photography, always ask me this question.
How can I take shots like Brassai? My first answer is always this — you are not in Paris, you are not in the same time period, you are not the same culture as Brassai, you don’t have the same camera, you don’t have the same film, so how can you take shots like he took?
That double-barrelled answer usually astounds everyone into a short silence! And luckily, most people do acknowledge those facts. We live in different times, have different values, we behave differently and our cultures, no matter where we come from, have changed so much over the years. Even Paris is not the same now as it was when Brassai was around!
Let’s take a simple example. Many of Brassai’s shots were taken in bars, clubs or drinking places. Suppose we try and do that today? Try walking into a pub or club these days armed with a camera and begin taking photographs.
You will very likely be shown the door within a few minutes! I know; it has happened to me several times (yep; I’ve been kicked out of cafes and clubs several times…oh, the shame of it!). Just to show you, I actually was in Paris some years ago and took the chance to tramp around the oldest parts as much as I could, taking rolls and rolls and rolls of film as I went about, hoping to catch the magical mystery of Brassai.
What was the result? Out of around 10 rolls of monochrome film, I managed to get just 5 or 6 shots that looked vaguely Brassai-esque; the rest were good shots, but nothing like Brassai’s work! Why? Because I am not Brassai, and the Paris of Brassai has changed.
The only way I’ve been able to take shots in a club or pub is surreptitiously, and I am pretty sure that were I to be found out, I would either end up sitting outside the place on my butt, or otherwise end up with a thick lip, such is the climate these days!
When Brassai was around, people rather liked having their photos taken, or did not mind. It was a novelty. Nowadays, it’s seen as an invasion of privacy, as we all become more introverted and anti-social.
Then comes another thing; why on earth would you want to take shots exactly like Brassai’s? That would be copying. Would it not be better to take your own shots, but with the kind of eye Brassai had? That way, we would be bringing Brassai back to life some 50 years or so after his death, and you wouldn’t be copying him, but merely learning from him.
Nevertheless, let’s savour some of his shots anyway, by the by!