November 5: It’s Guy Fawkes Night for those in the UK and for those here in Australia who remember when we used to celebrate it with “penny bungers” and “Catherine Wheels” before the number of bushfires they started caused domestic use of fireworks to be outlawed.
It’s a moment to reflect on darkness. Normally the enemy of photography (the art of ‘writing with light’), two photographers, on November 5 in 1931 and 1940 respectively, embraced and defeated the absence of light.
Both of these photographers operated in the era of film. Digital imaging has progressively driven back the barrier of darkness to the point that we can now take for granted that we can get usable images in situations in which the human eye struggles to see. Where the film photographer of the period up to the 1970s had to rely on push-processing and emulsion intensifiers in order to get close to 1600 ISO (necessarily for the entire roll), digital photographers may rely on shooting usable images at in three stops less light by dialling in 12,500 ISO, even in the middle of a shoot, and may call on 51,200 ISO if they don’t mind some ‘noise’ no worse than the grain of a 1600 speed film negative. It was only in the 1980s that tabular-grain black-and-white films like Kodak P3200 TMAX, Ilford Delta 3200 that offered 3200 ISO, started to be manufactured, though they are no longer a match for digital images rated at this high sensitivity.
Andre Kertesz began photographing at night around 1914 in Budapest. He moved to Paris in 1925, where he continued to make night photographs and met fellow Hungarian, painter Gyula Halasz, who later changed his name to become Brassai. Kertesz introduced him to photography one night in December 1929 as they wandered the streets of Paris. Brassai would become the most influential night photographer of his generation. Henry Miller, who often accompanied him on his nighttime rambles amongst the low-life of Paris, gave him the nickname The Eye of Paris.
On November 5, 1931, Brassai wrote to his parents:
This is not the long letter yet but it’s a letter all the same and it contains some good news.
The best French publishing house has decided to publish my collection photographs taken of Paris by night. I’m going to discuss the terms and conditions with them tomorrow and may well receive an advance if we come to mutually agreeable arrangement.
Having returned from Brittany (I’ll come back to this topic later) I immediately compiled my collection (about hundred photos mounted on fine paper because I thought it was time for me to display to display my work to potential publishers).
First I went to see Lucien Vogel the editor of Vu. He was delighted, sat down immediately and wrote a letter to Peignot, editor of Arts et Metiers Graphiques, who received me at his home that very night. He asked me how come he hadn’t heard of me yet. I answered that I hadn’t wanted to show my work to anyone until I felt it was worthy of being shown. (the self-deprecatory stratagem worked perfectly as you shall see from the results since I managed to ensure both a higher fee and higher esteem).
He asked me to give him three photos which he will place in the next issue of Arts et Metiers Graphiques (this is the most beautiful and expensive periodical in France). I then showed him 20 from my Paris Nocturnes series proposing that he published them in a collection entitled Paris de Nuit. He liked the idea and said that, had not been a crisis, he would’ve immediately accepted the book for publication; things being what they were, however, he asked that I give him time to consider the matter and I requested that I not show my work to any publishers in the meantime. I replied that I’d be very pleased if he published the book on account of both the publicity and the quality presentation but I asked him not to delay too long in making the decision since it was in my interest to have the collection printed as soon as possible. He said that two weeks should be sufficient for him that I should call around November 5. Meanwhile I took another 20 photos under and above bridges in the Tuileries and on rainy streets at night (these are among the most beautiful to pieces in my collection) to impress Peignot further.
Published in 1932, Paris de Nuit became the first monograph of night photographs.
Brassai had chosen photography over other media, particularly drawing and sculpture for which he displayed equal talent, partly because, he later said, it was “a medium specific to our time”. Since it was also the medium of ‘writing with light’ he had to make a new art form out of it by ‘writing in darkness’.
In an article written in 1933, he explained he made up his technique as he went along: equipped with his Voigtlander Bergheil, he waited four minutes or more for an exposure (measured by the time it took to smoke a cigarette), avoiding the direct light of relatively dim gas street lamps by diffusing it behind trees or with distance, reflecting it in rainy streets, using only available light but excluding its source from the frame, he wanted strange lighting full of unnerving shadows.
Nevertheless, Brassai did resort to artificial lighting, often using magnesium flash powder to light his interiors and some exteriors (which led Picasso to label him ‘The Terrorist’).
The subjects of Brassai’s photographs were certainly aware that they were being photographed because he needed their cooperation. In the image above, there is a mirror (a frequent device in so many of his images) behind the bar at which two prostitutes drink and play dice. In it we can see reflected the raised arm of his assistant, igniting the flash in its holder. Brassai himself poses as a customer in his white shirt. He has opened the shutter prior to the flash being ignited and the long exposure picks up some detail such as the shiny canisters behind the woman on the left who has moved her head slightly to the right as the flash fires, so that her hair appears transparent.
The publication of Paris de Nuit was remarkable not only because it was the first of its kind, nor simply because of its sumptuously printing in photogravure, but because of the remarkable influence it had on contemporary photographers of the time. Bill Brandt met Brassai in Paris , and Brassai’s influence on the Englishman’s work was profound and he recreated one of Brassai’s photographs, probably about the time Paris de Nuit was published (December 1932). He posed his wife, Eva, as a prostitute outside a Chinese restaurant in Hamburg’s red light district, St Pauli. Eva (below) wears a cloche hat and fur collar which are almost identical to the prostitute’s outfit in the Brassai picture (above).
Brandt had assisted surrealist Man Ray in Paris in 1930, and this experience influenced his night imagery. Brandt’s book A Night in London, published in 1938 also by Arts et Metiers Graphiques, which though inspired by Brassai’s work, is distinctly in his own style. While Brassai’s subjects were the people he met in his nocturnal wanderings, Brandt used his friends and family as models in his nighttime scenes. Furthermore, several shots for A Night in London were actually daytime images printed darker to look like night scenes (then a commonly used cinematic technique – ‘day for night’); for Brandt any available techniques justified in achieving the mood he wished to generate.
Thousands of Londoners had started to spend their nights in the Tube after the first German raid on the city 7 Sept 1939. Art connoisseur Kenneth Clark (director of the Ministry of Information during the war) had commissioned sculptor Henry Moore to document the shelters in drawings for propaganda purposes. Hugh Francis, director of the Photograph Division asked Brandt’s to make a comprehensive record of shelter life. Brandt went out every night from 4 to 12 November, finding subjects not only in the Tube but in Church crypts, railway arches and private cellars.
Brandt brought ‘some Kodak lamp holders, some photoflood bulbs and enough flex to stretch the length of Winchester Cathedral.’ Robert Butts, Brandt’s assistant, recalls the photographer’s primary concern was to catch everyone asleep:
In the darker air raid shelties where it was not possible to focus with existing light I held a torch, which had no magnifying glass, just a small bulb, over the heads of the subjects while he focused on it.
The flash unit was placed away from the camera and fired after Brandt had removed the lens cap from the open shutter of his Rollei:
In this manner he caught the play of light and shadow on the long rows of sleeping bodies in the underground tube tunnels. The photographs display very distinct and intense contrasts, and this, though leading to loss of detail, has the concomitant effect of increasing a picture’s impact.
In Elephant and Castle Brandt relies mainly on available light; the clock hands move past 3.45 am during an exposure of minutes. While other shelter photographers favoured the early part of the night when people were sitting up and providing ‘human interest’, Brandt was intent on capturing sleeping subjects. Above are a 1940s straight print and one made for Shadow of Light in 1966, in which with some heavy burning-in the distracting face of the man at middle ground right who is looking at the camera is obliterated.
In tracing the transmission of the theme and techniques of night photography from Kertesz to Brassai to Brandt, it is evident that each brought a personal purpose and interpretation in the absence of light.