The great Hungarian photographer Brassai is arguably the most influential night photographer of all time, particularly due to his work during the 1930s after the release of his seminal book, Paris De Nuit. I was introduced to Brassai while studying with Steve Harper in San Francisco in the late 1980s, shortly after Paris De Nuit was reprinted in the classic Parthenon edition in 1987.
Last year I wrote about Howard Burdekin and John Morrison, who paid a backhanded compliment to Brassai in their own book London Night. The English photographer Bill Brandt admired and even copied Brassai’s night work. But this article is not about Brassai, but rather about Volkmar Kurt Wentzel, a German American photographer who also found inspiration in the pages of Brassai’s Parisian nocturnes.
After three days of walking and hitch-hiking, they found themselves in Washington, D.C., where the two parted ways. The friend went home to his mother, and Wentzel rented a room in Lafayette Square near the White House. He found a job working in the darkroom of Underwood & Underwood portraiture studio and news agency, where he also assisted the staff photographers. His first break came when one of his images was published in a Washington newspaper.
After being given a copy of Paris De Nuit by a friend, Wentzel began to photograph the well-known landmarks of D.C. at night. He often would process his images the same night, and then go out again to reshoot to improve his exposures, often staying out until dawn.
Wentzel’s next big break came in 1936 when a chance tour of the photographic facilities of National Geographic led him to discover that there was a job opening. He fortuitously had some of his night prints with him, and was granted an interview and then the job.
Wentzel did not photograph extensively at night after his early Washington images, but they were shown at the Royal Photographic Society in England and at other venues in Europe before being published in the April 1940 issue of National Geographic. An exhibition of the work was presented by the Corcoran Gallery of Art, and published in book form as Washington By Night in 1992.
Wentzel died in 2006 at age 92. Unfortunately, little is known about the technical aspects of his early night work, other than that he printed it at Underwood & Underwood studios, “surreptitiously using their best portrait paper” (as he writes in his book). He used a 4×5 Speed Graphic camera, occasionally supplementing the existing light with flashbulbs that, as he wrote, “were in fashion at the time.”