Photography Overtook Them

When I think about the most influential photographers, I think about Brassaï and Robert Capa. These men were far from ordinary and not as acknowledged for their work as they should be. They appear to be popular, but in an underground way. Brassaï started his work simply and hesitantly. One of his first photographs was of the “Drop of dew on a leaf of Nasturtium” (Plassart). On the other hand, Robert Capa had no fear and dived right into war exposing the various sides; I believe that he found a beautiful side to it, such as the “Paratroopers of the U.S. 1st Airborne Division landing near Wesel, Germany on March 24, 1945” (PBS). I believe that Capa and Brassaï used photography to “Document a hidden reality” such as stated in Susan Sontag’s book On Photography (55). To understand the work of these photographers, one must understand their past and how it is influencing the future. I will start with what I have learned about Brassaï and then talk about Capa.

The first time I encountered Brassaï, I was in a thrift store looking at pictures. His name was on a large canvas of a bridge. I became curious because I had never heard of him. What I learned was that Brassaï was born in 1899 and died in 1984. He was born in the Transylvanian village of Brasov, Romania; although, during that time, it was in Hungarian territory. He originally was an artist that took up photography when he was influenced by famous artists, such as his friend Picasso. He wanted to broaden his documentation of the surrounding world and became a writer as well. Gyula Halász changed his name to Brassaï in order to honor his place of birth and moved to France when he was about twenty-five years old. Brassaï became the “Eye of Paris” and mastered the art of photography by capturing more detail than the average human envisioned (Edwynn). His work became so popular that he published a book called Paris de nuit (Paris by night) that came out in 1933 (Sontag 55). I was hooked by the talent emanating from his photographs; I eventually had to know more about this time period of photography and this led me to Robert Capa.

While sitting in my English class this quarter, my professor shared an image of Robert Capa. This image dated December 3, 1938 when he was featured on Picture Post with a caption reading “The Greatest War-Photographer in the World” (War Chronicle). With the thought of him being the greatest war photographer, I wanted to know more about him and what made him so great. To my surprise, I learned that he was Hungarian as well with his place of birth in Budapest. Capa was born Andre Friedmann in 1913 and died in 1954; he used photography as a way to capture the events around him and was a war photographer correspondent for five wars: the Spanish Civil War, the Second Sino-Japanese War, World War II, the 1948 Arab-Israeli War, and the First Indo China War (Icon). These men were miles away from home and I thought about my life as well as theirs, since we are all foreigners to our surroundings.

Both men left home with the uncertainty of where their lives were going and they used photography as a way of “participation” (Sontag 10). Both were in a new setting and thus needed to feel a connection to it. Capa travelled the world and although Brassaï did not travel the world, both photographers needed to find comfort in where they were and photography gave them something to do to ease their discomfort. I understand this very well because without a connection to the world around us, we would be wandering with nothing to make us feel attached or alive, and we would have nothing to care about in life. Like the photographers themselves, life is always moving and changing; and the photographs appear to have little happening with them, but the viewer would most certainly be misled because there are infinitely many things happening.

Brassaï believed “Everything can be photographed” and this is what makes the “Drop of dew” so interesting because life springs eternally from water (Plassart). Brassaï preferred to photograph the underground Paris lifestyle and the city’s shell at night. This photograph is odd considering it is so simple and so exquisite. These raindrops are perched on the leaf while the reflection inside of them brings the mind to a state of wonder. This is an almost child-like quality of everyday occurrences and if my eyes turned away sooner, I would have thought the drops were on a map instead of a leaf. The biggest raindrop is like the sun and the moon overlapping while centered perfectly within the leaf. This is light and darkness; the darkness is the hidden, shadow world of the underground. What is seen in this photograph is condensed. Sontag says, “Photographed images do not seem to be statements about the world so much as pieces of it” (4). Brassaï captured the world inside of worlds: the underground world of Paris at night and the water that would make me willingly drown like Narcissus because I want to delve further into it and understand it; thus, the rest of the world is like an echo. Brassaï and Capa left an echo onto the world because of their photography.

Capa also photographed pieces of the world (Sontag 4). Capa has taken numerous photographs of war. The “Paratroopers” are almost scattered directly in the same way as the rain-drops are (PBS). It is also simple and dream-like. It does not show the brutality of lives lost but a softer side. It reminds me of the break in fighting, or the calm before the storm and Capa was there with his camera capturing the condensed version of the broader sky view. There is something chaotic, beautiful, and reserved about this photograph. This photograph does not tell of what war is fought, why it is fought, or how many casualties and deaths have occurred. Nobody knows during a war what the outcome will be, or if the individual themselves will survive it.

Sontag expresses, “Social misery has inspired the comfortably-off with the urge to take pictures, the gentlest of predations, in order to document a hidden reality, that is, a reality hidden from them (55). Maybe this is why Brassaï went to those nightclubs; maybe he became so comfortable with his current life, that he felt a sort of superiority to his subjects. Could Sontag be correct in her assertion, and did Capa feel superior as well? Both these men were from their home of Hungary. This country experienced trauma such as the Holocaust (Holocaust Encyclopedia). If neither left, I do not believe either would have become the famous photographers they are today. Robert Capa was Jewish (Szántó); Brassaï was “sometimes incorrectly described as Jewish” (RoGallery). With this against them, they became other people by hiding themselves in order to survive; they changed their names and moved away. I certainly do not feel that either thought of themselves as superior to another. I think that circumstances eventually worked in their favor, but I don’t think a minority can ever feel superior to another human being; from my own experience of restricting my past heritage of who I am and where I am from, I often feel less than whole and halfway in-between two worlds.

With the changing of names, it brings up other things that can be changed, such as photographs. Capa’s photographs have been questioned regarding their authenticity in an article titled “Robert Capa in Love and War” (Whelan). I have found nothing stating that Brassaï’s work has ever been questioned. To have work questioned is a major deal. Sontag says “A fake photograph (one that has been retouched or tampered with, or whose caption is false) falsifies reality” (86). I agree with Sontag and this is where I would also make a clear distinction that altering a photograph turns it into arts because true reality cannot change, it is permanent; although, there are varying perspectives regarding the past, it does not change what happened, even if what happened can certainly be called into question.

If photographs can be called into question, it doesn’t necessarily change the popularity of it. It can become even more popular because people start discussing it. Robert Capa, in an interview said that he didn’t want to be “favorable or unfavorable” he just wanted his “prized photograph.” He stated “every photograph is the same to you. The prized picture is born in the imagination of editors and the public who sees them” (ICP). I wonder what exactly Capa meant by this. It seems he enjoyed his work immensely, but that he went with what the culture at the time wanted. He changed to fit their agenda so that he could fit into his own, and he never really knew what would be popular until the public viewed it. He just clicked his camera and let others make the magic happen for him.

Brassaï and Capa both took their work seriously. One of his most famous Capa quotes is “If your pictures aren’t good enough, you aren’t close enough” (Morris). This implied a message to detail that one must work hard to capture and both of these photographers have done just that, even in their underground popularity. I think these images have become more “memorable than moving images, because they are a neat slice of time, not a flow” (Sontag 17). They are a piece of time that was captured and with each little piece put together, more of the past is revealed. More connections are made and more truths are revealed. With each slice, more understandings are made possible about a time in history that can be visited only through photographs, art, and literature. Brassaï and Capa did document the “hidden reality” (Sontag 55). They also documented hidden beauty and had meaning within their work. They took us into our own personal worlds of self-reflection. They were headed far from home like little birds trying to make it on their own and invented them-selves by becoming two of the world’s most influential photographers.


Works Cited





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