“Night does not show things, it suggests them. It disturbs and surprises us with its strangeness. It liberates forces within us which are dominated by our reason during the daytime.” ― Brassai
He woke up at sunset and did not return home until sunrise—this was the nocturnal life Brassai led after his arrival in Paris. His first book, Paris by Night, collected the most picturesque images from his nightly jaunts: buildings looming over empty streets from whose depths the gaslight filtered magically skywards, the ghostly quais along the Seine, the deserted station of Saint-Lazare. Cascades of light over the fountain on the Place de la Concorde were confronted with a warming fire built under a bridge by homeless men. Paris by night—stray cats, patrolling gendarmes, tired prostitutes, workers tarring a street. It would be over 40 years before Brassai entrusted his most drastic pictures to a publisher: the "secret Paris" of prostitutes and bordellos, the gay and lesbian clubs, the "Negro balls," backstage at the Follies-Bergere ...
In 1932, Brassai began to record the scrawls and scratchings on the walls of Paris buildings, and in 1934 published them in the Surrealist journal Minotaure— a "language of the walls" that was more than mere childish pranks. In addition to figures and heads that recalled cave paintings and prehistoric rock drawings, in addition to masks, faces and animals, he discovered configurations he would later collect under the titles "La Magie" and "Images primitives." "These terse symbols," wrote Brassai in Minotaure, "are nothing less than the beginnings of language; these monsters, these demons, these heroes, these phallic gods are nothing less than elements of a mythology." In 1950, Brassai became virtually an archaeologist of this unofficial art when he began noting the locations of the images in a sketchbook, "in order to revisit them later under better lighting conditions, or to find them again many years later and record their changes." It was this appreciation for marginal art that prompted John Szarkowski to contrast the "angel of darkness" Brassai to the blithe spirit of Cartier-Bresson, saying that Brassai's sensibility, his pleasure in the primitive, fantastic, ambivalent, even bizarre, originated from an earlier age.
To Brassai we owe the first documentation of Picasso's work in sculpture, including many fragile creations in paper that have since been lost or destroyed, as well as a record of the conversations he had with the artist. And he was an avid visitor of the studios of his illustrious artist friends, whose personalities he recorded for posterity.
Excerpt taken from 50 Photographers You Should Know by Peter Stepan