Night Vision

March 14, 2021

"View from Notre-Dame" by Brassaï

One of the small ironies associated with the City of Light is that one of its most iconic photographers is mainly noted for images that plumbed the darkness.  Gyula Halász — better known as Brassaï — arrived in Paris as a young man in the early 1920s.  He was a Hungarian-born former art student who initially earned his living as a journalist.  He only picked up photography because he earned more by supplying pictures with his articles.  He initially disdained photography as an art form but was awakened to its possibilities by a fellow Hungarian emigre, André Kertész, who himself became a noted photographer.  

Kertész had mastered many of the techniques that Brassaï would later use to document his nocturnal peregrinations around the city.  Brassaï described himself as a “noctambulist” — one who walks by night.  Night photography was — and remains —technically difficult, especially with the photographic equipment available at the time.  Largely self-taught, he relied on trial and error to arrive at he proper exposure, using a lit cigarette as a timer.  The long exposures necessary to take pictures in low light often resulted in blown-out (overexposed) images or halos around bright light sources like street lamps.  Brassaï learned to work around that by shooting in rain or fog, which diffused the light and gave his street scenes the haunting atmospheric look that has come to be identified with his outdoor work.

Brassaï never adopted the more versatile 33mm Leica camera favored by many of his contemporaries, which allowed them to shoot on the fly.  He stuck with a Voigtlander Bergheil plate camera, which was reasonably compact but required a more elaborate setup.  For his indoor work, he used a tripod and flash. There could be no candid shots, so he had to win the confidence of those he photographed.  Given where he managed to gain entry, the results were remarkable.  He seemed equally at home in an elegant soiree at Maxim’s or a dingy brothel.  The subjects found in a 1968 retrospective of his work at New York’s Museum of Modern Art included the rich and famous, equestrians, assorted artists and writers (many of them his friends), street vendors, dancehall girls, hoodlums, pimps, streetwalkers and transvestites, With few exceptions, the common denominator is that they were creatures of the night.

“Night does not show things,” Brassaï said, “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.”  He was stating truths about his photography that also have a spiritual application.  We associate God with blinding revelation, such as St. Paul’s encounter with the Risen Christ on the road to Damascus, forgetting that Paul was, in fact, blinded by the encounter and remained in darkness for three days.  Likewise, the Lord first revealed himself to Moses in the Burning Bush, but when Moses later returned to Mt. Sinai, he is described as drawing near to “the thick darkness where God was.”  Why darkness?  Just as Brassaï could not directly photograph street lamps using long exposures without risking a blown-out image, Moses was told he could not look directly upon God’s face and live. Had a photographer been along on that expedition to Sinai, he would have done what Moses did and hidden himself in a cleft in the rock as the Lord passed by.  Then, if he were lucky, he might have grabbed a shot of God’s backside. 

Spiritual adepts have long maintained that God is not revealed by the light of reason. Theologians can tell you all aboutGod but cannot apprehend God directly. At best, the theologians of the via negativa can tell you what God is not.  God cannot be grasped by the intellect.  He is like nothing in the created order, like nothing you can see or otherwise apprehend with your senses by the light of day. To find God, we must enter into the “deep but dazzling darkness,” as the metaphysical poet Henry Vaughan called it.  But how do we find our way?  Here we might take our cue from Brassaï: Night does not show things, it suggests them.  We learn to make our way, as Brassaï learned to take pictures, by trial and error.  Mystics sometimes speak cryptically of “second sight,” which is just another way of saying you must learn to see in the dark.       


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