Earnest is the adjective that best describes these bright, readable letters that Brassaï (born Gyula Halasz in 1900) sent to his parents over the 20-year time-span of 192040. In 1920 he left Transylvania for Berlin, where he studied drawing at the Academy and wrote articles for the newspapers back home, then moved to Paris, where he eventually earned recognition and a living through the medium of photography. He mingled with both the cosmopolitan and bohemian, including Picasso, who once remarked that Brassaï "owned a gold mine but was exploiting a salt mine" by choosing photography over the fine arts. Brassaïwho expresses no regret over his fatehad begun taking pictures for pleasure, but found immediate success when some of his frank, sensual photographs of the city's lively nocturnal existence (he was fascinated, he said in a letter, by the way the city "lives and moves") were gathered and published as Paris at Night in 1931. After that life became easier: He was sought out for commissions, and Alexander Korda, spotting Brassaï's eye for line and framing, hired him as a cameraman. In the last letters, however, when Brassaï had become established and sought after, he sounds unchanged, still diligently noting what he spends on food and rent, offering a sanitized record of his romances, still self-absorbed but humble, and ever- passionate about the world and his travels. The only difference is a sad note of maturity creeping in, prompted by the news that his parents may have to leave their hometown as a result of imminent war.
The biographical sketch that emerges here through practical details compensates for the dearth of reflections about art.