Gyula Halász was born under the sign of Mercury on September 9, 1899 in Brassó, Transylvania, Hungary, now Romania. His mother was of Armenian origin. His father, a university professor of French literature, had studied at the Sorbonne. At the end of December 1920, he went to Berlin, where he frequented a circle of artists, including László Moholy-Nagy, Wassily Kandinsky, Oskar Kokoschka and Edgar Varèse, as well as taking courses and graduating from the Academy of Fine Arts in Berlin. In January 1924 he arrived in Paris, finally fulfilling his desire to live in France; he will never return to his native country.

Bilingual since he spoke Hungarian and German, his main concern was to master the French language, so much so that he incessantly studied linguistic works and grammar books for the rest of his life. 1924 is the year in which he definitively decided to live on the rive gauche of the Seine. To earn money, he collaborated with a Hungarian sports newspaper and German magazines, and searched for old photographs and postcards which would later appear in the collections of Tériade, Georges Ribemont-Dessaignes, J. Levy, André Breton, Paul Éluard, Salvador Dalí, Georges Sirot and other. In 1926 in Montparnasse he met the photographer André Kertész, who he sometimes accompanied in his reportages. In the same year, he visited Nice for the first time, where he discovered the dazzling light of the Mediterranean. In 1928 he moved to a hotel frequented by artist friends such as H. Reichel, Tihanyi and Korda, on the corner of rue de la Glacière and boulevard Auguste Blanqui. It is from here that, starting from 1930, he would photograph Un homme meurt dans la rue, La Vespasienne en hiver, Vue vers la place d’Italie, Vue sur le métro aérien. In autumn 1929, a friend lent him an amateur camera with which he took his first photographs. It is then that he decided to buy a Voigtländer camera to try to capture his vision of things and the bewitching atmosphere of the Parisian streets and their mazes.


Between 1930 and 1931 Brassaï became friends with Alexander Calder and William Hayter. He lived in Brittany. His parents went to Paris for a few months. He began to photograph humble objects, the nobility of which he showed in Objets à grandes échelles. During his walks through Paris, he created the first night views of the deserted city. In his hotel he set up a darkroom to develop glass plates and made the prints himself, an activity that he would continue until the end of his life. He felt like a craftsman. On his timeless nights he took photographs, sometimes accompanied by other tireless night owls such as Léon-Paul Fargue, the “pedestrian of Paris”, or Raymond Queneau, who lived in the same hotel, but most of the time he was alone. Henri Miller arrived in Paris and often visited him at the hotel. In 1932 Gyula Halász adopted the pseudonym Brassaï (literally “from Brassó”, his hometown), while Henry Miller wrote his first text on Brassaï, which was published only in 1938 under the title “The Eye of Paris”, in Max and the White Phagocytes.

Brassaï made Miller, an unrepentant walker like him, discover an eccentric Paris, far from the tourist spots, at all hours of the day and night. From these nocturnal wanderings Paris de nuit was born, published on 2 December 1933 by Charles Peignot’s Arts et Métiers graphiques publishing house, with a preface by Paul Morand. His passion for marginal arts and art brut took shape and he began to trace the graffiti on the walls of Paris, of which he published a collection in 1960, often re-proposing them ten years later “to note the degradation of time”. Georges Braque, Joan Miró, Pablo Picasso, Jean Dubuffet, Jacques Prévert, Henri Michaux, René Bertelé, Wols and Camille Bryen particularly appreciated and collected them. At the same time he began a series of studies on “the big city and the oddities of men”, published in 1976 in Le Paris secret des années 30.


Through Ribemont-Dessaignes he met the brothers Jacques and Pierre Prévert, as well as Marcel Duhamel, Henri Langlois and Mary Meerson. He also frequented Maurice Raynal, art critic of the newspaper L’intransigeant and friend of Cubist artists, where he met Léger, Le Corbusier and Max Jacob. Raynal introduced him to Tériade, who in turn introduced him to Picasso. Picasso appreciated the atmosphere of his nocturnal photographs and asked him to photograph his sculptures, unknown at the time, in his castle in Boisgeloup, Normandy, and in his studio on rue de La Boétie. These photographs would be published the following year in the first issue of Minotaure. In 1933, through Minotaure and Albert Skira, he met the surrealist writers and poets with whom he collaborated: Breton, Éluard, Desnos, Benjamin Péret, Man Ray…

At Picasso’s home he met Salvador Dalí and Gala, as well as the poet Pierre Reverdy, whom he portrayed in 1933 and again twenty years later, in 1950, and who would become one of his closest friends. For Minotaure, Brassaï contributed with his photographs to a long article on “Modern style” and another on “Involuntary sculptures, which are everyday objects, such as soap, bus tickets, crystal and potatoes.” He showed his nude photographs for the first time in Variétés du corps humain and introduced readers to the “Ateliers d’artistes” of Picasso, Henri Laurens, Aristide Maillol, Jacques Lipchitz, Alberto Giacometti and Charles Despiau. He collaborated on Dakar-Djibouti, an issue dedicated to African art. Some of his female faces appear in Dalí’s collage Le phénomène de l’extase. Brassaï became friends with the two Giacometti brothers, Diego and Alberto. He would take several portraits of the latter over the years, fascinated by the aging of faces as well as by graffiti. First solo exhibition in London at the Batsford Gallery, where he displayed his photographs of Paris de nuit. In 1948 he married Gilberte-Mercédès Boyer.


Between 1949 and 1960 he travelled for Harper’s Bazaar (Greece, Ireland, Italy, Spain, Turkey, Brazil, Sweden, Morocco, United States etc.). Part of the photographic documentation was published by the magazine. In 1957 he received the gold medal at the Venice Photography Biennale. His first trip to the United States lasted several months, with a long stay in Louisiana. Brassaï used a Leica for color photography. He knew Walker Evans and Robert Frank. Between 1964 and 1965 Brassaï published Conversations with Picasso, one of his main works. The text is illustrated with about fifty photographs of him. It was translated into many languages and republished in 1987. In 1967 he began working on tapestries on the theme of graffiti. In 1968 he held an exhibition of sculptures, drawings and engravings at Lucie Weill’s Pont des Arts Gallery, in rue Bonaparte. A retrospective of his photographs was organized by John Szarkowski at the Museum of Modern Art in New York.


Brassaï dedicated himself to sculpture, and for this reason he often travelled to Italy. He also worked on an essay on Henry Miller and on his correspondence with the writer. In 1976 he finally published Le Paris secret des années 30, with Gallimard: tempo rediscovered, a long work on human comedy, a sort of fresco of a popular or marginal France that was disappearing, for which he felt great tenderness. The book was released simultaneously in the United States, England, Germany and Japan (it would be republished in 1988). In 1978 Brassaï worked on the texts and photographic prints of his last book, The Artists of My Life, which would be published in 1982. In 1984 Brassaï had just finished drafting a book on Proust, to whom he had dedicated several years of his life, when on July 7 he died in Beaulieu-sur-Mer, in the light of the Mediterranean. He is buried in Montparnasse cemetery, in the heart of the Paris that he celebrated so much for half a century.