(9/55) Bill Brandt - photographer

Bill Brandt by Bill Jay
(copyright Bill Jay: respective copyright owners)

Criticism is often an inspired mixture of opinion & fact. So with that in mind, consider the following:

Millions of images are produced every day in the world, most with camera phones, using limited creative controls. Unmediated photographs that are of little consequence as creative works to the world of photography. Often taken very quickly, with very little deliberation, very few will be printed. Very few seen or remarked on much after after the point of production. Most will remain on hard drives or floating unseen in the so-called cloud on services like Facebook, Instagram or Pinterest.
That's not to say they won't be enjoyed by their makers. Just that the way photographs are consumed is so fast, constant & superficial, it's only a rare few that float to the top of the digital pile, for more considered viewing.

Consider this also. Very few of the photographs, that are part of these statistics will endure. Be significant. Again, this is largely a consequance of the sheer scale of production but also the way iconic photographs are available to be viewed, exhibited (& also mimicked) on a truly global scale.
Of the photographs we do see, most will bare the hallmarks of influence. Perhaps an ironic reference to Robert Frank. A re-framing of something seen in one of William Eggleston's photographs or Andreas Gursky. Or the work of any one of hundreds of significant photographers works.

But how many are the work of a truly original creative mind? Really. How many? Even in today's world?
My guess, is that years from now, very very few - maybe no more than a dozen of those billions of photographs will stand out as significant distinctive works of photographic importance from the year 2012. 
It's a fact there are many more photographs being made in the world today on a daily basis that were ever made in the past. But what 'floats' to the top of the pile. What becomes significant is a very different matter and subject to all kinds of influences, fads and predjudices.

To some extent, this mysterious 'process' has remained unchanged over the years. It's not foolproof either. Think back to the period for example, when Robert Frank, William Klein and many other photographs were fashioning a unique photographic language from the most commonplace realities.
A lot of that work took years to become recognised. To become significant. To become popular and to become to a large extent symbolic of the period.
Which brings us to Bill Brandt. Brandt was perhaps unique among photographers in that:
  1. he made very personal photographs that didn't look like anyone else's work. This was rare in his lifetime. even more so in todays world.
  2. his work was created in the public domain (for the most part) 
  3. and the full importance & significance of his work was acknowledged during his lifetime.
Many master photographers can lay claim to one or two of these facets, but very few to all three.

Born Hermann Wilhelm Brandt, Bill Brandt (as he became known) (1904 –  1983),was the son of a British father and German mother.Brandt later disowned his German heritage and would claim he was born in South London.

Shortly after the first world war, he contracted tuberculosis and spent some years at a sanatorium in Switzerland. He traveled to Vienna to undergo treatment for tuberculosis by psychoanalysis. Whatever the circumstances of his recovery however, he became a (house?) guest of socialite Eugenie Schwarzwald. When the writer Ezra Pound visited the Schwarzwald residence, Brandt photographed him. It's not clear whether or not Pound offered Brandt a direct introduction to Man Ray but Brandt apparently did work in May Ray's studio as an assistant in the early 1930's. Man Ray had a track record of hiring gifted young photographers to assist him. A few years earlier Berenice Abbott had worked as an assistant.

In 1933 Brandt moved to London and began photographing British society.
Now most descriptions of Brandt's work, talk about his documentary photography and to this period in Brandt's work, typifying this documentary 'attitiude'.
That's not strictly accurate. There was an emerging documentary tradition that was uniquely British. That part is true. John Grierson in film, and others, pioneered a distinctive approach to making visual records of ordinary British life. Brandt was also interested in examining 'ordinariness' but that's not what he photographed. That's not what we're looking at.

Look at the photographs themselves. There is nothing casual about them. The word snapshot is particularily innapropriate.
They are well made, artfully composed constructions. From the lighting, to the printing to the use of flash, everything in the pictures is deliberate. Inclusive. And personal.

They're fantastic images. But also quite barmy in the way someone parachuting in to pre-WW2 war Britain might see the country. Without blinkers. Without pre-conceptions. It's why the maids, the coal miners, the domino players all seem connected as actors in the same strange fantasy world orchestrated by Bill Brandt.

The actual photographs themselves, if you get a chance to see them as original prints are quite fascinating.

Take the image of the Billingsgate porter. You can't see it from the JPG below, but Brandt often heavily 'worked' his images to get the right effect he wanted.
I've seen a reproduction where the fish gills have been re-marked by brushing in photo retouching paint. It's not the most delicate use of re-touching and (once you've noticed in some of his prints) does draw attention to itself.

But I think that's rather the point isn't it? These images are not the impersonal products of a machine. What we're seeing are the end results of a process, starting with the negative and ending with a finished (manipulated) print.

Some critics have seen these photographs as evidence of surrealism in his work. Personally I think he had a rather extraordinary eye for events & situations where the 'ordinary' was under constant reappraisal by anyone receptive enough to notice.

But that's not all you can see. Many of these images taken when he was still quite young, show a very different way of actually picturing the world. He's actually playing with the tools he has available like chemicals & paper to re-imagine how the world around him could look.
You have to dig deep into photography's history to find examples before Brandt of photographers bending the language & tools of photography to make something new & personal. Alfred Stieglitz had tried. So had Paul Strand. And in their own way also the Photo-Secessionists of which Stieglitz was a member & also briefly Strand. The closest match historically are probably the photographers of the New Objectivity movement in Germany but emotionally Brandt's photographers are red hot compared to the much cooler 'objective' photography typical of this movement.

Take a look at the photograph of the Parlour maids. The white aprons are printed to an almost pure white. Ditto the napkins. Look at different copies of this photograph in books on Brandt and you'll see how personal and powerful his photo-vision is/was.
Other examples are 'a snicket in Halifax' and 'Soho-bedroom'. A world that is almost wholly black & white, with a very limited grey scale. An absolutely perfect strategy for photographing in England's often overcast skies & landscapes.

While we're looking at technique, have a look at his photograph 'early morning on the river, London Bridge'. Is there an example of anyone using photographic grain to enhance & 'make' a photograph before Brandt? Probably not.
Grain, seen by many photographic traditionalists as something to mask or inhibit (even now this is true only in the modern world it's digital noise that's the 'enemy.') is shown as a unifying pictorial structure in which grain is an embedded element within the overall design.
Remember this was taken in the 1930's. Many ambitious photographers of the era had understood and were deeply involved in furthering a pictorial visualization of the world using tone, sharpness and careful control of light & dark. Very few photographers had realized the purely graphic potential of photography. Brandt, along with Cartier-Bresson and a few others was one of the first.

 Domino players North London
(copyright Bill Brandt: respective copyright owners)

Porter at Billingsgate Market, (1930)
(copyright Bill Brandt: respective copyright owners)

 Sailor, Cox, London - Kensington, 1930
 (copyright Bill Brandt: respective copyright owners)

Parlourmaid and under-parlourmaid ready to serve dinner c.1936
(copyright Bill Brandt: respective copyright owners)

 Tic-tac men at Ascot Races (1935)
(copyright Bill Brandt: respective copyright owners)

 Early Morning on the River, London Bridge' (c.1935)(copyright Bill Brandt: respective copyright owners)

This photograph was published in Liliput magazine
(alongside a drawing by Gustave Dore)

(copyright Bill Brandt: Liliput magazine: copyright respective copyright owners)

  Rainswept roofs, London
 (copyright Bill Brandt: respective copyright owners)

 Housewife, Bethnal Green (1937)
 (copyright Bill Brandt: respective copyright owners)

Soho Bedroom (1936)
(copyright Bill Brandt: respective copyright owners)

 A Snicket in Halifax
(copyright Bill Brandt: respective copyright owners)

 Coal-miner's Bath, Chester le Street, Durham
(copyright Bill Brandt: respective copyright owners)

Coal-searcher Going Home to Jarrow, (1937)
(copyright Bill Brandt: respective copyright owners)

Brandt published two books containing photographs in this theme: The English at Home (1936) and A Night in London (1938).
These books are some of the first examples of the extended photo-essay published in book form. Looking at the cover designs, its clear that both books were designed to stand out. Quite what book buyers thought of the books can only be guessed at, as a mass audience for photography books did not as yet exist. 

Night in London is particularly striking as an example of an artist finding his 'voice' and making exemplary use of limited technical resources.
Filmed around London, often during the Blitz when the capital was subject to frequent blackouts and aerial bombardment by the Luftwaffe, Brandt made careful use of all sources of available light to make his pictures. Using streetlights, moonlight & even the search lights used to trace enemy German aircraft, Brandt made a series of remarkable photographs that show sides of London life hitherto unseen by a mass audience including criminals, police and prostitutes photographed using limited lighting to stark & dramatic effect.
For me, one of his most significant & arresting images was titled 'The Sleeper', published in Lilliput magazine.
Look at it and think about what it shows.A women in close up near the camera. The image is in deep focus because we also see the darkened room she's in. But we also see beyond the room and into the London night, lit by searchlights. Who else, in the midst of the drama, horror & uncertainty of the blitz would have thought to make so poetic an image at a time of such uncertainty & anxiety?
Brandt really was unique.And looking at these images, taken so long ago and yet seeming so fresh to modern eyes we can see the truth in that statement for ourselves.

English at home (cover)
(copyright Bill Brandt: respective copyright owners)

A Night in London (cover)
(copyright Bill Brandt: respective copyright owners)

 Underground shelter 1940
(copyright Bill Brandt: respective copyright owners)

St Pauls, London
(copyright Bill Brandt: respective copyright owners)

Police & Criminals
(copyright Bill Brandt: respective copyright owners)

   The Sleeper - produced for Lilliput magazine (1941)
(copyright Bill Brandt: respective copyright owners)

After the war, Brandt began to concentrate on photographing landscapes,and also portraits. He was working at the right time. As a regular contributor to magazines with a demand for unusual & innovative imagery such as Lilliput, Picture Post, and Harper's Bazaar he was able to freely experiment during his 'day job'. In fact when you look at his published works from the period, its quite remarkable to see how much creative, inspired work was produced on assignment.

His most famous landscapes were compiled together in the book 'Literary Britain' (1951)
They are very distinctive (as much of his work is) and often employed the use of a wide angle lens (which were anathema to many 'serious' landscape photographers) and also dramatic lighting, often heightened & exaggerated in the darkroom to make high contrast images which were also powerful visual statements about the land & weather.

(copyright Bill Brandt: respective copyright owners)

 Top Withens (1945)
(copyright Bill Brandt: respective copyright owners)

Gull's Nest, Isle of Skye
(copyright Bill Brandt: respective copyright owners)

 Isle of Skye (1947)
(copyright Bill Brandt: respective copyright owners)

He also became known as a prominent portrait photographer. These are really interesting and worth their own essay. Suffice it to say, that at a time when the prevailing fashion was for portrait photographers to simplify and dramatize their subjects by stripping away detail in the manner of Irving Penn or Richard Avedon (e.g. person & white background) Brandt went to the other extreme. Photographing personalities such as writers, artists, film-makers, Brandt took care to include contextual material that hinted at an emotional inner life. Or at the very least grounded the sitter in their own creative world.

Which for example is the most 'honest' photograph of Francis Bacon from the 2 examples shown below? Which of the photographs comes closet to a visual approximation and mood of the painters work?

Avedon's photograph shows a technically 'clever' dissonance between 2 similar images but it never goes deeper I think than the formal jarring split between the 2 pictures . Brandt's photograph is more unsettling.
There's something 'wrong' about the very common elements in the landscape that's shown. A london park on an overcast day.
There's an inperceptible sense of unease or dread.That's much harder to photograph but Brandt has somehow managed to embody those intangible elements within a single image. That was his uncommon skill.

Francis Bacon (painter)
(copyright Bill Brandt: respective copyright owners)

Dylan Thomas (writer/poet)
(copyright Bill Brandt: respective copyright owners)

I can't complete a visual talk about Bill Brandt, without looking at some of his most famous later work. His photographs of nudes. Or more accurately of the human form.
Many of these most iconic of photographs were
photographed with a Victorian wooden plate camera (an old police camera) which lacked a shutter but featured a very wide-angle lens.
They are a fascinating series. Some were taken in domestic interiors where the presence of a naked form is provocative (but oddly never really erotic.)  Some are taken on the rocky beaches of East Sussex.

What they all share is a delight in seeing the human form as a new kind of visual playground where the use of unusually wide angle lenses and lighting can create altogether new aesthetics of the human form.

The closest visual equivalent to these images are the sculptures of Henry Moore (who Brandt had photographed) or Jean Arp. 
But what's very unusual and almost without precedent in the history of art, is that the forms and 'new vision' that they represent, is wholly photographic in nature, from the choice of lens to the choice of printing paper and processing.

It's not often that photography can be said to have invented a completely different way of looking at the world. It is a sign of the importance of Bill Brandt to the world of art, not just that he succeeded in fashioning a unique vision of the world using photography as the tool. But that he continued to do this over a long & distinguished career in photography.

Black/white nude
(copyright Bill Brandt: respective copyright owners)

Crossed fingers
(copyright Bill Brandt: respective copyright owners)

Nude (interior)
(copyright Bill Brandt: respective copyright owners)

Nude (interior)
(copyright Bill Brandt: respective copyright owners)

All photographs are copyright their respective original copyright owners.
Original Text is copyright by Nick Lloyd
Share on Google Plus

About Nick_L

This is a short description in the author block about the author. You edit it by entering text in the "Biographical Info" field in the user admin panel.