Rooftops, Paris 1946 is a medium-size black and white photograph taken by the Hungarian photographer Brassaï. The work depicts the roofs of a sprawling city shown from a very high vantage point. These buildings appear in a haphazard formation and there is a white and grey haze hanging over them, making it difficult to discern architectural details and indicating the extreme height of the photographer’s position. In the foreground on the left side of the image is the dark silhouette of the side of what appears to be a cathedral spire or tower, adorned near to its top by a cat-shaped gargoyle that faces out towards the city. Although most of the frame is filled by the spire and the receding urban landscape, near to the top of the image this gives way to a misty horizon and a band of greyish-white sky. The photographed scene has a large white margin around it that has been signed in the bottom right corner by the artist. The bottom left margin bears an inscription indicating that this print is number seventeen in an edition of thirty.
Although the title Rooftops, Paris suggests this photograph has been taken from a high vantage point in the French capital, the image does not appear to show Parisian buildings and the photograph is not know by this name by other museums who hold editions of the work in their collections. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, has catalogued the work as Chartres from Cathedral Tower, while the J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles, titles the image Chartres Cathedral in Winter. Although these two names differ, they both suggest Chartres to be the subject, and the scene shown in the image resembles Chartres more closely than Paris. Brassaï took this photograph in 1946 and, as with many of his photographs at the time, he developed the negatives himself in the basic darkroom he had set up in his kitchen in Paris.
The photograph’s misty setting and vertiginous perspective are suggestive of the influence of the surrealist movement with which Brassaï has often been associated. Between 1933 and 1939 Brassaï contributed more than one hundred and fifty photographs across twelve issues of the surrealist publication Minotaure, which was edited by André Breton and Pierre Mabille. Despite his close relationships with Breton and Mabille, Brassaï insisted in 1980 that his work did not share surrealism’s visual and philosophical approach:
People thought my photographs were ‘Surrealist’ because they showed a ghostly, unreal Paris, shrouded in fog and darkness. And yet, the surrealism of my pictures was only reality made more eerie by my way of seeing. I never sought to express anything but reality itself, than which there is nothing more surreal.
(Quoted in Lionel-Marie and Sayag 2001, p.14.)
However, the cultural historian Marja Warehime has argued that the enigmatic atmosphere evoked by Brassaï in photographs such as Rooftops, Paris may be considered a form of ‘ethnographic surrealism’ – images that ‘reverse the procedure by which the ethnologist/anthropologist observes a foreign culture, then attempts to establish parallels between this unknown culture and his own, making the strange familiar and comprehensible’ (Warehime 1996, p.89). In her discussion of Brassaï, Warehime explores the surrealist notion of dépaysement, a French word often translated as ‘displacement’ or ‘disorientation’ that describes the removal of individuals or objects from their native context in order for them to see or be seen in new ways. For Warehime, dépaysement ‘takes on its fullest meaning when applied to the exploration of a familiar cultural landscape as though it were an unknown, foreign reality’, an effect that she observes in works such as Rooftops, Paris (Warehime 1996, p.90).
By the time that this photograph was taken Brassaï was an established photographer, although he was better known for his images of Paris, most notably those that had been published in his first book of photographs, Paris by Night (1933). In spite of this, Rooftops, Paris captures Brassaï’s photographic approach to the modern metropolis, specifically the unusual perspective and heightened contrast that emphasises the mist hanging over the buildings. For Brassaï, such effects made for a ‘definitive image’ – one that struck an ‘equilibrium between the real thing and the form … for my aim is to create something striking and fresh out of what is ordinary and everyday’ (quoted in Lionel-Marie and Sayag 2001, p.15).
Marja Warehime, Brassaï: Images of Culture and the Surrealist Observer, Louisiana 1996.
Anne Wilkes Tucker, Brassaï: The Eye of Paris, exhibition catalogue, Museum of Fine Arts, Houston 1997, reproduced p.293.
Annick Lionel-Marie and Alain Sayag, Brassaï: ‘No Ordinary Eyes’, exhibition catalogue, Hayward Gallery, London 2001.
Supported by Christie’s.