Friday, 1 November 2013

Excerpts from Brassai's Preface to Camera in Paris

"It is legitimate for a man who has given the best part of his life to an occupation of absorbing interest, to seek to justify his activity and to relate it to some broader aspect of life, either in the present or in the past.

But the difficulty is to find a name for what he considers his vocation. For though many names describe it, none exactly fits. Seen with a camera in his hand, he is called a photographer. Yet he possesses no studio, nor does he deal with portraits, publicity, sport or fashion. He does not indulge in documentary or scientific photography. Nothing would horrify him more than to be taken for a professional photographer - a specialist. Does that mean that he's an amateur? No, for he execrates the dilettantism which, for lack of technical skill, is incapable of expressing ideas, of communicating them with form and authority. A reporter, then? Does he rush off to the scene of an accident or a crime? Is he always on the look-out for unusual, spicy details? Does he follow the travel of statesmen or the campaigns of generals? Does he go exploring or visit strange lands beyond the sea? Is he really anxious to witness and record the stupendous, the extraordinary? Why, no.

He has the utmost distaste for `news' and avoids it when possible. He dislikes travel and loathes sensationalism from the depths of his soul. The most thrilling event for him is daily life. But that is not to describe him as an illustrator, although his pictures do appear in albums and illustrated papers. But what do they illustrate? They do not at any event serve to adorn, explain or comment upon a text. They have captions, usually as clumsy as they are superfluous. It is rather a case of the text, reduced to its simplest expression, illustrating the photographs.

This man is sometimes said to hunt for pictures. But he hunts nothing at all. He is the quarry, rather, hunted by his pictures. Sometimes, flatteringly, they call him a poet. Then he gets frightened. Has he taken the wrong turning, he wonders? He has never looked at anything with an ulterior, poetic motive, and has always instinctively avoided what is known as poetry. Well, then, he must be an artist. An artist? He hates the very sound of the word when applied to photography. `Artistic photographer'! Horrible! He is man to shut himself up in an ivory tower to play with puzzle-pictures, or to chase after 'against-the-light effects, luminous haloes or stream-lined nudes. Nor is he interested in view-points from awkward angles, dizzy bird's-eye views, or the world seen through the eye of a microscope. He has always shown a sovereign disdain for `artistic' effect, for the `pretty' or the `picturesque'. He has never wasted his time with such childish amusements as super-impression, solarizations and other tricks, which though legitimate from the technical point of view, are condemned utterly and absolutely by the rules of photographic art. He has never felt the itch to overstep the bounds, to ape the latest fads in painting, in order to prove that he, too, can invent, that he, too, has an imagination, and that photography, too, is Art (with a capital `A').

Now this man, who yearned in vain for a name, a name that should correspond to his aim and his function discovered to his great surprise a portrait of himself which was so faithful that he had no difficulty in recognizing himself in it. Strangely enough, it is a portrait of Constantin Guys, a draughtsman-chronicler of the Second Empire and the great Victorian era, and it was drawn by that great enemy of photography, Charles Baudelaire. This nameless man, then, attentively studied the features of this portrait which explained himself to himself.

`I saw', says Baudelaire, `that I was dealing not so much with an artist as with a man of the world. A man of the world is one who understands the world and its mysterious springs of action. An artist is a specialist, chained to his palette like a serf to the soil. This connoisseur of life, this collector of impressions, dislikes being called an artist. Is he not right to do so? His interest is the world at large; he wants to know, to understand, to appreciate everything that happens on the surface of our planet. The artist knows little or nothing of life; the man of the world is in spirit a citizen of the universe.’

But that is not all. Our friend was amazed by the delicate perception of the poet who saw in his universal curiosity the fons et origo of his calling.

`He will dash through a crowd of people to track down an unknown face, a glimpse of which has caught his imagination. For him curiosity has become an all-absorbing, irresistible passion.’ He recognizes himself again in the convalescent `who revels like a child in his ability to be intensely interested in things, even the most trivial in appearance'. `The child', he says, `sees everything as something new. He is always intoxicated. This deep and joyful curiosity explains the child's fixed gaze of animal ecstasy in the presence of something new, whatever its nature.’ Baudelaire goes on to speak of the 'man-child' who, at every moment, has the genius of childhood, that is a genius `for which no aspect of life has become stale'.

And how could he remain unmoved by these lines, in which the poet situates him in his real element, namely, the crowd?

`The Crowd is his element, as is air for the bird and water for the fish. His desire and his profession is to identify himself with the crowd. For the complete gaper, the hardened observer, it is a thing of sheer delight to take up his residence among the multitude, the swaying, moving, fugitive, infinite multitude. To be out, and yet to feel everywhere at home; to see the world, to be in the centre of the world - these are some of the lesser joys of those independent, passionate, objective spirits which language is too clumsy to define. The looker-on is a prince, who, wherever he is, keeps his incognito. `Thus this lover of life in the round plunges into the crowd as into the immense reservoir of electricity. We might compare him also to a mirror, as vast as the crowd itself, or to a conscious kaleidoscope which, at every movement, reflects all the multiple facets and the ever-changing beauty of every element of life.'

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