A Book Of Contrasts: Bill Brandt

“It is part of the photographer’s job to see more intensely than most people do. He must have and keep in him something of the receptiveness of the child who looks at the world for the first time or of the traveler who enters a strange country.” – Bill Brandt

Heralded by many as Britain’s greatest modern photographer, Bill Brandt was a man who never took a photograph unless he had something to say. On par with Man Ray, Brassai, and Atget, Brandt accomplished what few photographers have been able to do (either before or since), which is to successfully bridge the gap between photojournalism and documentary photography all the way to the other end of the spectrum of fine art. His work is characterized by stark contrasts between black and white and strong geometrical structures, whether the images are of a miner bringing home his coal for the day or the nude form of a woman on a rocky beach.

Although Brandt was born in Hamburg, Germany in 1904, he always claimed British heritage. After being bullied at school following World War I and the rise of Nazism, he would later dissociate himself from his German background completely.  As a youth, he contracted tuberculosis and spent six-years at a sanatorium in Switzerland for treatment, after which, he followed his brother to Vienna and met the socialite Dr. Eugenie Schwarzwald, who got him a job as an assistant in a portrait studio. Schwarzwald also fatefully introduced him to the poet Ezra Pound. Brandt took Pound’s portrait, who loved it so much that he introduced Brandt to Man Ray. This led to a great friendship between Brandt and Ray, and Brandt apprenticed with him for several months in Paris, soaking up everything Ray could teach him and finding a new excitement for photography in the process. Man Ray had just invented the new techniques of rayographs and solarization and Brandt learned a lot from these experiments. He was also strongly influenced by Surrealism, which would stay with him throughout his career.

Brandt moved to London in 1933 and set up a darkroom in his kitchen. He took the skills he had learned from his months in Paris  and traveling around Europe and began working freelance, hired by magazines such as Harper’s Bazaar, Picture Post, and Lilliput. He was well-known for using his family members, not only as models in some of his images, but also to gain access to the subjects he wanted to shoot. His well-to-do relatives allowed him into their homes and friends’ homes to make photographs. In their homes he was able to access both the rich and the poor, shooting the owners of the homes and their guests, as well as the servants. He became known for emphasizing the pointed social contrasts he found in London society during the 30s. The Depression had been devastating to many, yet the rich were still living their lives as though things were the same as they had been in the 20s. But it wasn’t just the obvious social contrasts Brandt emphasized in his work. His images were filled with contrasts both literal and metaphorical; darkness and light, white and black, sharp angles and soft curves. Although what he was shooting was documentary, there was a depth and artistry that was not seen in typical documentary work.

The darkroom was where Brandt’s photographs really came to life; he considered shooting the photograph to be just a small part of the process. He would crop, dodge and burn, collage, and even used a “day for night” technique to completely alter the time of day in several of his images. “I am not interested in rules and conventions… photography is not a sport. If I think a picture will look better brilliantly lit, I use lights, or even flash,” Brandt said. “It is the result that counts, no matter how it was achieved. I find the darkroom work most important, as I can finish the composition of a picture only under the enlarger. I do not understand why this is supposed to interfere with the truth. Photographers should follow their own judgment, and not the fads and dictates of others.”

After spending several years in London, he traveled to the north of England to photograph the coal-miners during the industrial depression. The area had suffered 80% unemployment and the men “wore the drawn masks of prisoners of war,” said J.B. Priestley in his book An English Journey. The images he captured during this time, although bleak and full of despair, were also dignified and beautiful. The mills and mines alone, with their sharp angles leading to harsh smokestacks rising to the sky were the beginnings of his use of Expressionism in his images. He was starting to see how the camera could be used to distort reality just enough to evoke an emotional reaction. It is in these photographs you can see him being pulled in two directions, both towards journalism and photographing reality and the possibilities of photography as art. These images were published in Brandt’s first book The English at Home, in 1936.

Inspired by Brassai’s Paris de Nuit (1932), Brandt produced a second book which he called A Night in London. This was the series which established his reputation and opened the door for a multitude of assignments, including being hired by the British Home Office to document the hardships faced by the British people during the German bombing raids in WWII. The British government was hoping that Brandt’s images would help persuade the US to join the war. Sticking with his theme of contrasts, he photographed not only the Londoners taking shelter in Underground stations, but also the eerily deserted streets during the blackouts. It was right after the war, however, that Brandt lost his excitement for documentary photography. Everyone around him seemed to be doing the same thing and the main theme of his work had disappeared, so he turned to landscapes and then to nudes.

In 1944, he had gotten ahold of a 1931 Kodak with a wide-angle lens used for photographing crime scenes. Influenced by the cinematography of Citizen Kane and literary classics by authors such as Thomas Hardy and the Bronte sisters, he traveled throughout England trying to capture the perfect images to go along with the texts he was so fond of. He would spend days, months, or even years returning to places he knew he wanted to photograph, wanting to get just the right atmosphere. “To be able to take pictures of a landscape I have to become obsessed with a particular scene. Sometimes I feel that I have been to a place long ago, and must try to recapture what I remember,” Brandt said. “When I have found a landscape which I want to photograph, I wait for the right season, the right weather, and right time of day or night, to get the picture which I know to be there.”

During this same time he was also commissioned by a number of different magazines to shoot portraits. Brandt’s portraits were of the same style as his landscapes; moody, atmospheric, and full of contrast. He made a conscious effort to leave the subject to their own devices, rarely looking or talking to them while shooting. He wanted to capture something other than a snapshot. He didn’t want a fleeting, affected pose, but rather, a composed, relaxed expression. He wanted people to forget about the camera even being there, instead just sit with their own thoughts, undisturbed by what he was doing. He wanted to capture the essence of who a person was, which was in direct opposition to his nudes.
Brandt’s nudes are surreal, landscapes, with almost no sense of humanity to them. He used the models to accentuate specific body parts. He wanted to show these forms in the landscape, how they become a part of their surroundings. He was highly influenced by the cinematography of Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane and used his wide-angle lens to accentuate legs, arms, and even ears or fingers. There is a strong sense of detachment in these images, not only with the subjects, but in his process. He had found a 70-year-old camera with a super wide-angle lens in a secondhand shop which he began to use almost exclusively. Rather than photographing exactly what his eye saw, he let the camera do its job saying, “I let myself be guided by this camera, and instead of photographing what I saw, I photographed what the camera was seeing. I interfered very little, and the lens produced anatomical images and shapes which my eyes had never observed.” His nudes are neither sexy nor erotic, but rather an experiment in geometry, in lines, and in curves. Like Picasso, Brandt took the human form apart and reassembled it, forcing us to see it in ways we had never thought possible.
As a photographer, Bill Brandt was born at exactly the right time and in exactly the right place to realize the vision that drove his body of work. He started his career in what he called “the center of the world”, Paris in 1929, when photography was just being recognized as an art form. Brandt saw the possibilities of the medium and didn’t let the limits of the technology stop what he wanted to do, saying, “Photography is still a very new medium and everything must be tried and dare.” He was a master of composition and was able to brilliantly show via form and shadow how the ordinary could be made extraordinary.

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Recommended Reading

Bill Brandt: Shadow and Light
Brandt Nudes: A New Perspective
Bill Brandt: A Life

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