by Gerald Boerner
The set of quotes that were originally included in this posting and the images (small, low-resolution JPEGs) have been removed at the request of the Bill Brandt Archive Ltd, London, UK. You may check out the Masters of Photography site under “Brandt” to see some of his images. The quotes are available from the PhotoQuote web site. [See references at the end of this posting.]
Bill Brandt (1904 – 1983)
Bill Brandt was one of the acknowledged masters of 20th century photography. Taken as a whole, his work constitutes one of the most varied and vivid social documents of Great Britain, producing a body of photographic works that range from stark realism and social comment to pure abstraction and surrealism.
Brandt was born in 1904 in Hamburg to German parents of Russian descent. His childhood years were spent mostly in Schleswig-Holstein, Germany and also in Davos, Switzerland. When Ezra Pound visited the Schwarzwald residence, Brandt made his portrait. In appreciation, Pound allegedly offered Brandt an introduction to Man Ray, in whose Paris studio. In 1929 Brandt went to Paris and worked for approximately 3 months in Man Ray’s studio where he also learned much from the Parisian art of the period, such as the films of Luis Bunuel and Salvador Dali and the photographs of Eugene Atget, and Andre Kertesz.
In 1933 Brandt moved to London and began documenting all levels of British society. His ambition was to become an independent professional photographer. His first book, The English at Home, appeared in 1936. Based on the portrayal of types and stereotypes, this was a kind of manifesto of British society, through which Brandt undertook to show the British their real faces. The complete opposite of the ideal motherland of his dreams, he discovered a divided people, a stratified society with a well-defined caste system, in the grip of economic crisis. Two years later he published A Night in London; in the same way as his friend Brassaï, Brandt enjoyed the uncertain, magical lighting effects of the night. Prowling around almost invisibly, he recorded London, revealing social inequality. He did not hesitate to ask his close friends to pose for him for certain situations.
His career through the 1930s and 1940s ran parallel with the emergence of the great photographic magazines such as Picture Post and Lilliput which afforded Brandt the opportunity to produce important, ground-breaking photographic essays, the most notable being images from the Industrial and Coal-mining areas of Northern England. He was a regular contributor to magazines such as Lilliput, Picture Post, and Harper’s Bazaar. He documented the Underground bomb shelters of London during The Blitz in 1940, commissioned by the Ministry of Information. During World War II, Brandt focused every kind of subject – as can be seen in his "Camera in London" (1948) but excelled in portraiture and landscape.
Brandt contrived, in his portrait of E.M. Forster (1947), something of the shadowed luxuriance of calotype and later wrote of his intentions in Camera in London (1948):
When photographing a writer, I was forcibly impressed by the Victorian character of the room in which he sat. A hard print brought out this impression. Details were lost as they were in early Victorian photographs. My print did not imitate those old photographs; the methods of printing simply formed a link of association between the two, adding its reminiscent effect to the Victorian setting.
With the end of the war, Brandt’s attention turned away from reportage, to the landscape and its natural form in the book "Literary Britain" 1951. He is also known for his series of extraordinary female nudes, particularly distinguished by his use of a wide-angle lens in close-up (causing the body shapes to appear distorted) and by the stark black -and white tones with little middle range.
His first nudes were photographed with an old wooden plate camera which the police had formerly used, lacking a shutter and equipped with a wide-angle lens. These photos seemed inspired by Balthus, Hitchcock, and Orson Wells. Their dramatic atmosphere is enhanced by the unusual viewpoints of the architectural backgrounds, imbuing them with a menacing atmosphere of murder or suffocation, perhaps connected with the asthma from which Brandt suffered all his life.
These unnatural perspectives, which shocked people at the time, based on the enlargement of volumes and close-up treatment of details, may be compared with the experiments of Picasso, the forms of Henry Moore, and, of course, the distorted work of Andre Kertész. Increasingly turning to abstract photography, from 1951 to 1960, when he gave up nude work, Brandt undertook exterior views (on the beaches of East Sussex, Normandy, and the south of France), in which he brought together the eternal themes of women and the sea, birthplace and symbol of creation.
His major books from the post-war period are Literary Britain (1951), and Perspective of Nudes (1961), followed by a compilation of the best of all areas of his work, Shadow of Light (1966). Brandt became Britain’s most influential and internationally admired photographer of the 20th century. Many of his works have important social commentary but also poetic resonance. His landscapes and nudes are dynamic, intense and powerful, often using wide-angle lenses and distortion.
In the context of the art of his time, whose aesthetic experiments are reflected in his work, Bill Brandt was one of the first photographers to have created an individual style. While allowing the vocabulary of his art to evolve, he consciously worked at creating a personal photographic language. Based on the alliance between form and content, the fruit of experiment, exploration of the imaginary and an ever deeper investigation of the same themes, his work is notable for its splendid use of strong contrasts and densely printed images.
Bill Brandt is widely considered to be one of the most important British photographers of the 20th century. In 1981 The Royal Photographic Society inaugurated its National Centre of Photography in Bath with an exhibition of 50 years of Brandt’s pictures. His work has also been honored by a score of smaller shows. in such far-flung cities as Paris, Stockholm, San Francisco, Houston, Boston, and Washington, D.C. Brandt’s pictures are considered important by London’s Victoria and Albert Museum, New York’s MoMA, Rochester’s International Museum of Photography, and Paris’ Bibliotheque Nationale, which all have major collections of his prints.
Background and biographical information is from Wikipedia articles on:
Bill Brandt that can be found at…
Masters of Photography: Bill Brandt…
Quotations by Bill Brandt on the PhotoQuote web site…
Michael Hoppen Gallery on Bill Brandt…