Brassaï was a Hungarian photographer, sculptor, and filmmaker who rose to international fame in France in the 20th century. He was one of the numerous Hungarian artists who flourished in Paris beginning between the World Wars.
Brassaï was born in Brassó, Transylvania, Kingdom of Hungary, to an Armenian mother and a Hungarian father. He grew up speaking Hungarian. When he was three, his family lived in Paris for a year, while his father, a professor of French literature, taught at the Sorbonne. As a young man, Gyula Halász studied painting and sculpture at the Hungarian Academy of Fine Arts in Budapest. He joined a cavalry regiment of the Austro-Hungarian army, where he served until the end of the First World War.
In 1920, Halász went to Berlin, where he worked as a journalist for the Hungarian papers Keleti and Napkelet. He started studies at the Berlin-Charlottenburg Academy of Fine Arts. There he became friends with several older Hungarian artists and writers, each of whom later moved to Paris and became part of the Hungarian circle.
In 1924, Halasz moved to Paris to live, where he would stay for the rest of his life. Living among the gathering of young artists in the Montparnasse quarter, he took a job as a journalist. He soon became friends with the American writer Henry Miller, and the French writers Léon-Paul Fargue and Jacques Prévert. In the late 1920s, he lived in the same hotel as Tihanyi.
Brassaï's job and his love of the city, whose streets he often wandered late at night, led to photography. He first used it to supplement some of his articles for more money, but rapidly explored the city through this medium, in which he was tutored by his fellow Hungarian André Kertész. Using the name of his birthplace, Gyula Halász went by the pseudonym "Brassaï," which means "from Brasso."
Brassaï captured the essence of the city in his photographs, published as his first collection in 1933 book entitled Paris de nuit (Paris by Night). In addition to photos of the seedier side of Paris, he portrayed scenes from the life of the city's high society, its intellectuals, its ballet, and the grand operas. Brassai photographed many of his artist friends, including Salvador Dalí, Pablo Picasso, Henri Matisse, Alberto Giacometti, and several of the prominent writers of his time, such as Jean Genet and Henri Michaux.
Brassaï continued to earn a living with commercial work, also taking photographs for the United States magazine Harper's Bazaar. He was a founding member of the Rapho agency, created in Paris by Charles Rado in 1933. His photographs brought him international fame. MOMA exhibited more of Brassai's works in 1953, 1956, and 1968. He was presented at the Rencontres d'Arles festival (France) in 1970, in 1972, and in 1974 (as guest of honor).