On April 2 1957, the Hungarian-born photographer, Gyula Halász, known as Brassaï, and his wife, Gilberte, boarded the liner Liberté to sail from Le Havre to New York. Brassaï was almost 60, and his reputation was already established on both sides of the Atlantic, but this was his first trip to the US. He had made his name in Paris over 20 years before, with his book Paris de nuit, photographs of the city’s demimonde and their night-time haunts in bars, metro stations and backstreets. It was published in 1932, the year Brassaï met Picasso and the writers and artists who would work for Minotaure, the magazine edited by the surrealist André Breton. By the mid-1930s, Brassaï counted among his friends Salvador Dalí, Giacometti, Max Ernst, Man Ray, Georges Bataille, Le Corbusier, Samuel Beckett and, of course, Picasso: “The acquaintance and friendship of the most phenomenal artist of the century,” he wrote later, “were worth a trip to the moon!” He also began a lifelong friendship with the American writer Henry Miller. They met in Paris in 1930, when Miller was writing Tropic of Cancer. “The same Parisian world came to life in his writings and in my pictures…”
Brassaï’s links with America date back to this time. In 1932, he had been offered an exhibition at the New York gallery of Julien Levy, but, too involved with work on a film for the director Alexander Korda, he missed his slot. “This was a serious mistake,” he wrote. “My name could have become known in America as early as 1932.” But in 1935 he was offered a contract by Carmel Snow, the editor of Harper’s Bazaar in New York, and accepted. It lasted until the early 1960s. By this time Brassaï had been included in three exhibitions at the Museum of Modern Art: “Five French Photographers” (with Cartier-Bresson, Robert Doisneau, Willy Ronis and Izis), in 1951; “The Family of Man” in 1954, and “Graffiti”in 1956. But still he held off from visiting America. It was finally an invitation from Holiday magazine that changed his mind. They offered a trip that would include New York, Chicago and Louisiana. Brassaï agreed, taking his wife, a new Leica and colour film with him.
In her introduction to a new book of Brassaï’s American photographs, Agnès de Gouvion Saint-Cyr thinks Henry Miller influenced Brassaï’s reluctance. “Miller’s constantly repeated descriptions of a narrow-minded American society, of the hostile, indeed violent city of New York and the feeling that contempt could kill in America, would subtly percolate Brassaï’s mind, to the point where … he would [only] go to the US once his reputation was well established.”
Once he had been there, however, he returned several times before his death in 1984; to Washington and to California, where he visited Henry Miller in Big Sur. De Gouvion Saint-Cyr concludes her essay with an irresistible line from Brassaï: “I’m the opposite of Christopher Columbus,” he said, “this time it’s America who has just discovered me.”
‘Brassaï in America 1957’ is published by Flammarion, £30