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Bill Brandt was born in London in 1904. The family moved to Germany but Brandt, suffering from tuberculosis, attended a sanitarium in Switzerland. Leaving the hospital in 1929, Brandt went to France where he studied with the surrealist artist, Man Ray in Paris.
Brandt took up photography and his work first appeared in the Paris Magazine in 1930. During the Depression he returned to Britain and his photographs appeared in the Daily Chronicle. He also published books of photographs including The English at Home (1936) and A Night in London (1938).
During the Second World War Brandt recorded life during the Blitz and became one of the world's leading photojournalism. In 1948 he published The Camera in London.
After the war Brandt lost interest in documentary photography and developed his ideas on expressionism and surrealism. His photographs were often strangely lighted and were printed for high contrast with the elimination of middle tones. His subjects included nudes, landscape and seashores. Bill Brandt died in 1983.
Besides my work on Picture Post, I had also since 1941 been responsible for Lilliput, the pocket magazine started by Stefan Lorant to which some six years earlier I had vainly tried to contribute in the hope of earning three guineas. Lilliput was a delightful little publication, well printed, with an attractive coloured cover always drawn by the same artist, Walter Trier. One of its best-known features was the 'doubles' - two look-alike photographs on facing pages, a pouter pigeon
opposite a cadet on parade with his chest thrown out; Hitler giving the Nazi salute to a small dog with its paw raised; a bear opposite a publican with a pear-shaped face.
Bill Brandt, today a venerated father-figure in photography, took many picture series for Lilliput, photographing young
poets, taking pictures on film sets, in pubs, in Soho, in the London parks. One day in the summer of 1942 we suggested to him that these wartime nights offered a unique opportunity to photograph London entirely by moonlight. Because of the blackout there was no street lighting, no car headlamps, no light of any kind; never in history had there been such a chance, and once the war ended it would never come again. He returned to us weeks later with a beautiful set of mysterious photographs out of which we made ten pages. He had been obliged to give exposures of up to half an hour, and had once found himself suddenly surrounded by police. An old lady had seen him standing beside his camera mounted on its tripod, and dialled 999 to say there was a man in the road with a dangerous machine.
Bill Brandt’s Negative Beginnings
Young people sometimes look at the world with brash certainty, seeing only absolutes — stark blacks and bright whites. But time and experience teach us that life exists mostly in nuanced gray, and that ambiguity often provides insight.
For the photographer Bill Brandt, the reverse was true. His early social documentary work was rendered almost entirely in subtle midtones. It was only in his later, and more famous, nudes and landscapes that he made strikingly high-contrast prints.
To really understand Mr. Brandt’s work, you have to turn to the original, vintage prints, and that’s exactly the goal of “Shadow and Light,” a retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art. His photos were exhibited at MoMA in 1948 and again in 1961, but it was the 1969 exhibition curated by John Szarkowski that cemented his reputation as one of the most important 20th-century photographers. Until recently, the museum’s Brandt collection was composed almost entirely of high-contrast prints made for the 1969 exhibition under the supervision of the photographer.
After he began making his dramatic prints in the early 1950s, Mr. Brandt would only reprint his photos from before and during World War II in much higher contrast, which radically changed their effects. But a recent acquisitions campaign by MoMA focused on prints Mr. Brandt himself had made at or around the time the negatives were exposed.Bill Brandt/Bill Brandt Archive Ltd., courtesy of MoMA “Reg Butler.” Circa 1952.
Exhibiting these images allowed the curator, Sarah Hermanson Meister, to connect what had seemed like completely separate silos of Mr. Brandt’s work.
“If you’re forced to look at the different sections of his work in isolation, it’s difficult to understand the trajectory of a career,” she said.
The exhibition fleshes out Mr. Brandt’s work with many images that are rarely shown, including photos from World War II that go beyond the images of daily life in London bomb shelters that were always included in previous retrospectives. Without the added context, it is easy to dismiss his early social documentary and portrait work as a prelude to his more influential work from the s, s and s. In reality, he would have been an important photographer even if he had stopped photographing before his nudes.Bill Brandt/Bill Brandt Archive Ltd., courtesy of MoMA “Gull’s Nest, Late on Midsummer Night, Isle of Skye.” 1947.
The volume of images in the exhibition and the accompanying book provides an opportunity to understand the development of Mr. Brandt’s vision and his printing.
“Looking at the vintage prints, you begin to see a shift from the late s into the mid-s from very silvery tones, which even persist after the war, into the higher contrast, higher pitch of the work in the portrait of Reg Butler (above) and the portrait of a young girl lying on the floor in that interior (below),” Ms. Meister said.
By examining the prints closely, viewers can also see that nothing was off-limits for Mr. Brandt when it came to darkroom work. He would print something one way and then print it in a totally different way, recrop it and often extensively retouch. He would use a straight razor to cut, scrape and press the emulsion, a fine brush to apply ink or watercolor washes, or a graphite pencil to add or strengthen detail.
“While he could be remarkably uninhibited in his image revisions, at times he demonstrated a restraint and a lightness of touch that is almost invisible on his finished prints,” Lee Ann Daffner, a MoMA conservator, wrote in the book.
Later in his life, Mr. Brandt might have taken an existing print and rephotographed, reprinted and retouched it to attain the desired effect.
He certainly wasn’t the only photographer to retouch images extensively or to mine different sections of the gray scale. But the wildly different printing approaches he took during his career made his work difficult to understand fully.
The MOMA exhibit, which runs through Aug. 12, is a tribute not only to the breadth of his work, but also to the primacy of the print — the physical object — in truly comprehending photographic artists.
“In the past, discussion of the dramatic evolution of Brandt’s printing style has been relegated to the sidelines, and while it is necessary to value the nearly impenetrable darkness and muted tones of his early prints from the 1930s, it is not so simple to dismiss the forcefulness of his later interpretations as an aging man’s bastard prints,” Ms. Meister wrote in the book’s introduction. “Indeed, a significant part of Brandt’s art is that the exposure of the negative was, for him, only the beginning. In many respects, each Brandt print is unique because the pervasiveness of his hand in retouching his work — to correct and to enhance, with a variety of tools — means that it is rare to find two prints presented in an identical manner.”Bill Brandt/Bill Brandt Archive Ltd., courtesy of MoMA “Portrait of a Young Girl, Eaton Place.” 1955.
𠇋ill Brandt: Shadow and Light” is on view at the Museum of Modern Art through Aug. 12.
An English photographer of German birth, Bill Brandt traveled to Vienna in 1927 to see a lung specialist and then decided to stay and find work in a photography studio. There, in 1928, he met and made a successful portrait of the poet Ezra Pound, who subsequently introduced Brandt to the American-born, Paris-based photographer Man Ray. Brandt arrived in Paris to begin three months of study as an apprentice at the Man Ray Studio in 1929, at the height of the era’s enthusiasm for photographic exhibitions and publications his work from this time shows the influence of André Kertész and Eugène Atget, as well as Man Ray and the Surrealists.
Upon his return to London, in 1931, Brandt was well versed in the language of photographic modernism. During the 1930s he published his important early monographs The English at Home (1932) and A Night in London (1932) in addition to becoming a frequent contributor to the illustrated press, specifically Picture Post, Lilliput, Weekly Illustrated, and Verve, his published pictures exemplifying his technical skill and his interest in building visual narratives. Some of his most significant reportages represented the extreme conditions created by World War II. After the war, Brandt began a long exploration of the female nude, transforming the body through the angle and frame of the camera lens.
Introduction by Mitra Abbaspour, Associate Curator, Department of Photography, 2014
Brandt was one of four boys he was born in Hamburg Germany on May 3, 1904. In 1920 Brandt contracted tuberculosis and spent the next six years in a hospital in Davos. Upon his release he traveled to Vienna where he found a job working with Greta Kolliner in a portrait studio. During his work at the studio he took the portrait of American poet Ezra Pound. He was very impressed with the image and recommended that Brandt go to Paris to work with Man Ray. He moved to Paris in 1929 to work in Man Ray’s studio. Though he only worked there for three months, Brandt was profoundly influenced by the surrealist style, and also became fascinated by the work of Parisian photographer, Eugene Atget. Both influences are vividly evident throughout Brandt’s career. While working with Man Ray, Brandt also did some freelance photography for Paris Magazine. Brandt moved to England in 1930, Brandt’s adopted home, and continued freelance photography. In 1934 Minotaure, a surrealist magazine based in Paris , published one of his first surrealist images. In 1936 he published his first book, The English at Home, which documented the economic and social conditions in England . He traveled for several more years and photographed in Barcelona , Toledo and Madrid . Lilliput, a fine-art magazine dedicated to photography was first published in 1937 and included many images by Brandt. Brandt was quickly becoming one of the most-sought photographers of his time .
The social documentation that Brandt did for these magazines was ground-breaking. England was in the midst of a depression. Brandt captured the essence of the people suffering and produced some of the finest photographic essays for Lilliput. Francis Hodgson, noted curator, writer, historian and critic, said of Brandt, “let’s start with a very simple perception that Brandt is by far the greatest British photographer and I include in that even Fox Talbot. Brandt is the only British photographer who is absolutely world class as we come to the end of photography’s span as a separate art form. Curiously, the reason for that is that he didn’t regard photography as a separate art form. He was literate and educated in books and theatre and dance as a young man—he cared passionately about the arts—but the critical thing is that he was always somebody who had something to say. In my own personal level of admiration I think that there is no greater photographer because the messages are so important—he is somebody who really did believe in social equality, in a decline of a certain kind of idyllic British life”.
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His second book, A Night in London, followed in 1938. During World War II, he recorded the effects of the war in London . Many of the photographs were taken at night, without flash, during the city’s blackouts. Influence by Brassai, who remained his lifelong friend, Brandt’s night-time images are saturated with mood and atmosphere.
Through the duration of the 1930s and until the end of the 1940s, Brandt worked for the Ministry of Information, the National Building Record and continued his work for Lilliput, Picture Post, and Harper’s Bazaar. Brandt’s work with Harper’s Bazaar issued in a new era of his career. Portraiture and fashion photography become as important to Brandt as his social documentation. He photographed Salvador Dali, Cecil Beaton, Henry Moore, Rene Magritte, Francis Bacon, Joan Miro, and many more. In addition, with many of his travels, he had grown to enjoy photographing the landscape.
By 1950 Brandt’s work made another major turn to a more expressive, artistic approach. He purchased an old wooden camera with a wide-angle lens that complemented his artistic style. “One day in a second-hand shop, near Covent Garden , I found a 70-year-old wooden Kodak. I was delighted. Like nineteenth-century cameras it had no shutter, and the wide-angle lens, with an aperture as minute as a pinhole, was focused on infinity. In 1926 Edward Weston wrote in his diary, ‘the camera sees more than the eye, so why not make use of it?’ My new camera saw more and it saw differently. It created a great illusion of space, an unrealistically steep perspective, and it distorted. When I began to photograph nudes, 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. I felt that I understood what Orson Welles meant when he said, ‘the camera is much more than a recording apparatus. It is a medium via which messages reach us from another world.’” The acute distortion produced by the lens created an abstract perspective in his subsequent landscapes, portraits and nudes. The images he created with the unnatural perspective, unusual viewpoints and the use of strange lighting shocked people at the time, but forever broadened the boundaries of imagery. Most of his influential work with nudes was taken in Normandy and on the Sussex Coast . In 1961 Brandt published his first book of nudes, Perspective of Nudes. Later, Shadow of Light , a retrospective of Brandt’s work was published. His first retrospective exhibition opened in 1969 at the Museum of Modern Art in New York . Edward Steichen and John Szarkowski were both involved with the production. This exhibition set forth a series of exhibitions around the world, including Paris , Stockholm , San Francisco , Houston , Boston and Washington D.C. His photographs are held in numerous private and public collections. The Bill Brandt Archive, located in London, offers limited edition Bill Brandt images and books.
Brandt received an honorary doctorate from the Royal College of Art in London , and was named as an Honorary Fellow of the Royal Photographic Society of Great Britain.
He was one of the “World’s Greatest Photographers” in June 1968 as declared by the Observer. Brandt suffered from diabetes for more than 40 years and on December 20, 1983 died after a short illness. At his request, his ashes were scattered in Holland Park . Earlier in his life he had married, but he never had children. However, Brandt was insightful when he said, “the photographer must first have seen his subject, or some aspect of his subject as something transcending the ordinary. It is part of the photographer’s job to see more intensely than most people do. He must have and keep with 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….they carry within themselves a sense of wonder.”
The most important aspect of Bill Brandt’s career was that he was open to all aspects of photography as a totally exploratory medium. The importance of recording his vision on film was just as important as his darkroom work. His commitment to the medium, in such that even a camera could teach him how to see a new perspective, has earned Brandt a place in the history of photography. Bill Brandt was inducted into the International Photography Hall of Fame and Museum in 1984.
He starts as a very considerable journalist. He’s interested in class, he’s interested in a changing society through industrialisation, and he’s interested in what I guess you would term ‘social fairness’.
GC: So Brandt is a photographer who is not that interested in photographic practises?
FH: What you say is that he was never a hobbyist and never a darkroom obsessive but a complete photographer. The reason I’d say so is that he never made a photograph unless he had something to say in it.
GC: Brandt was a German émigré …
FH: Well, Brandt starts as a man in disguise. He’s German but pretends to be English although he’s German enough so that he never changes his own name. He was a unique émigré in a generation where hundreds of important men came over from Germany and other European countries to work in Britain, Brandt was the man of British or rather half British decent who was very privileged and who came over not in fear of his life – indeed he came over to a very large house in Kensington. He is privileged in an era when people like The Cambridge Apostles and George Orwell state that it is
difficult to be privileged if you want to be a man of the left and he is quite genuinely a man of the left even though he was a very rich man all his life.
FH: He starts as a very considerable journalist. He’s interested in class, he’s interested in a changing society through industrialisation, and he’s interested in what I guess you would term ‘social fairness’. Photographs like the parlour maids, the cocktails in the Surrey garden, which all form part of the book The English at Home, are very largely to do with saying that ‘all of this’ can’t last. What he’s using as his tools to say it are really strict objective truth – he never felt he was lying in his pictures and enormous artistry – which always faked what he felt like faking.
For someone like me, I really appreciate the way that Brandt faked things so that the famous picture of the three men in overcoats in a dark alley – one of them is his brother in law, one’s a friend of his and they were all paid five bob and a good lunch in the pub to go and do it. He faked many of his photographs at this time. He’s a bit like Dashiell Hammett or Raymond Chandler – allowing yourself to say very important things about the state of the nation but through fictitious mechanisms.
GC: As opposed to say The Mass Observation Movement?
FH: Brandt was nearly seduced into Mass Observation – at one point he was made the staff photographer to The Home Affairs Ministry. Their staff draughtsman was Henry Moore and the two staff photographers were Brandt and William MacQuitty. They thought that they were being asked to be ‘artists to the war’ but they weren’t they were being asked to be propagandists – something that they both frowned over as they both felt that they had their own things to say. Brandt kept the job, hence the great pictures like the sleeping people in the underground, but he refused to do propaganda.
What Brandt then discovered was a sensibility very close to that of Francis Bacon – they were both profoundly shocked by the war and both very alarmed that they could be frightened to death. Brandt becomes a man who discovers the power of a kind of ‘distillation’ of the truth then you have to add his relationship with Stefan Lorant, which is very important.
Lorant was the first picture editor really to use news photography for more than news and to turn it into social comment – the first great magazine editor famous in Britain because he founded both Lilliput and Picture Post and edited them. When Lorant arrived in Britain he found this stable of German émigrés – Felix Mann, Wolfgang Suschitzky and also British native-born photographers like Bert Hardy and Grace Robertson and he tries to weld their acute sense that the world was ending and that one had to talk about it fast into something newsy and sellable.
Brandt falls into that with open arms and thinks that this mix of profoundly serious and light suits him very well. Actually he’s a bit too serious for the market so that Brandt never becomes a staff photographer on Picture Post. He regards himself partly a ‘holly fool’ Brandt can say what ever he likes because no one owns him – he’s rich, he’s privileged, he’s beautifully well trained and he’s fantastically literate in the arts. His inclination is to produce a book like Literary Britain, a much more satirical book than the present nostalgic sentimental way of regarding this subject would produce – it’s more of a Betjeman-type book.
GC: To what extent does this represent a definition of Brandt’s photographic intentions?
FH: What you have is a beginning of a vision of a man who is partly George Orwell, he’s trained to some extent by Man Ray therefore partly a surrealist. He’s more of a literary man than visual man – basically a literary critic and social critic but he using a camera as his tool. Out of this you get an admirable body of basic work – the Bronte landscapes, the landscapes of Hardy – stuff that Brandt can do standing on his head. You also get a deeply disturbed vision of a privileged man himself worrying about privilege and a German Englishman worried about the relations between Germany and England and a kind of Kensington Intellectual worrying about the
decline of the things of the sense.
Brandt really did feel all his life that the educated classes had let down the nation by the failure of education – it failed to use education and culture for the things that it could do. The values that he felt to matter were being eroded left, right and centre. At the top end of the class structure they were eroded by a sort of treason, that people didn’t live up to the expectations of the world and at the bottom they were eroded by economy – that people were too broke to be able to contribute.
Brandt really did feel all his life that the educated classes had let down the nation by the failure of education – it failed to use education and culture for the things that it could do. The values that he felt to matter were being eroded left, right and centre. At the top end of the class structure they were eroded by a sort of treason, that people didn’t live up to the expectations of the world and at the
bottom they were eroded by economy – that people were too broke to be able to contribute.
Bill Brandt: Shadow and Light Mar 6–Aug 12, 2013 6 other works identified
Bill Brandt: Shadow and Light Mar 6–Aug 12, 2013 10 other works identified
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Bill Brandt - History
Bill Brandt, Belgravia, London, February 1953 PN 1401-2
Bill Brandt made a place for himself as one of the most prominent photographers in Britain over the course of the twentieth century. Beginning as a photojournalist, Brandt produced a wide range of work throughout his career, including portraits, landscapes, and nudes, done entirely in black-and-white. Today, nearly forty years after his death, Marlborough Gallery showcases Brandt’s multi-decade-long preoccupation with the feminine nude with Perspective of Nudes (revisited). On show through May 8th, the exhibition highlights Brandt’s integration of natural and human forms, as well as his technical mastery of the photographic medium, both in and out of the darkroom.
Brandt began his career as a photojournalist, documenting the lives of everyday Britons and working for illustrated magazines. His first photobook, The English at Home, was an anthropological study of British life, showing with a distanced perspective the customs and habits of citizens from all walks of life. Following this, he was employed throughout the 1940s by the British government to capture scenes of daily life in Britain during the war. It was only after these stints in photojournalism that Brandt moved away from socio-political themes into more artistic work. In 1961, the publication of Perspective of Nudes marked, in the words of curators Martina Droth and Paul Messier, “the point at which Brandt’s stature as an art world figure came onto assured footing.” It was after this that people came to recognize Brandt as an artist rather than a journalist.
Bill Brandt, East Sussex Coast, July 1977 PN 3095-3
Landscapes were among Brandt’s most common subjects in his earlier work. In documenting Britain, he took many photographs of its iconic natural and archaeological forms. A 1947 photograph of Stonehenge, called “Stonehenge Under Snow” depicts the famous prehistoric monument with elegant and artistic composition, using great amounts of contrast and blank space—the stones are cast in deep blacks, while the snow and sky are almost without any detail. These two visual components, contrast and blank space, are used extensively in Brandt’s nudes, indicating that similar aesthetic interests were at play in both his documentary and artistic works.
Bill Brandt, East Sussex Coast, July 1977 PN 3095-3
The landscape was not set aside when Brandt turned to creating nudes, either. On the contrary, it is incorporated in a great many of his photographs of the feminine body. Nudes shot on the iconic rocky beaches of Europe combine the natural environment with body parts in a way that almost blends them into a unified whole. Brandt’s use of contrast is especially important here—for example, in “St Cyprien, France, October 1951,” the subject’s legs are rendered with shadows nearly identical to those on the body of water next to which she poses. This merging effect is not only accomplished with shading, but also through composition, as photographs such as “Baie des Agnes, France, 1959” depict interlocked fingers in a way that highly resembles the pebbles of the beach. Shot in extreme close-up and with meticulous shading, these body parts appear more as figures from modernist sculpture than actual body parts, evoking the forms of Brâncuși or Jean Arp.
Bill Brandt, London, March 1952 PN 1405-3
In order to create high-contrast prints with a great degree of detail, Brandt was known to manipulate his prints both before and after development, not only dodging and burning but also etching and shading them, with tools such as razor blades and graphite pencils. Looking very closely at the Marlborough prints, evidence of these surface manipulations can be seen. This preoccupation with retouching and attention to detail made Brandt a remarkably innovative artist at the time, engaging with the photographic print in uncommon ways.
Brandt’s use of a wide-angle lens is another very striking feature of his innovative photographic practice. He initially intended to use this type of lens to photograph large and great ceilings, but later realized that it also distorts subjects up close, noting that he had “never planned that.” Although this was a new discovery for Brandt, it soon became almost his signature aesthetic, and is especially evident in his nudes. Placing the camera very close to his subjects, the wide angle enlarges the foreground to a great degree, making body parts look highly disproportionate. Prime examples of these are found in “Campden Hill, August 1953” and “Hampstead, London, 1952” —in the latter, the subject’s feet are so distorted that they hide the rest of her body. This wide-angle technique gives many of Brandt’s nudes a highly surreal quality, in which the human body expands and warps into bizarre forms. Brandt’s work is thus particularly subversive given the history of the nude in art, which had long privileged proportion and symmetry.
Marlborough Gallery’s selection of thirty-five nudes thus showcase many facets of Brandt’s artistic career: the diffusion of a landscape aesthetic into the human form, his innovative darkroom techniques, and his disruption of the classical nude with hints of surrealism. Highly abstract and aesthetically engaging, Brandt’s nudes are a timeless constituent of twentieth-century photography.
The Directors of Marlborough New York are pleased to present Bill Brandt: Perspective of Nudes, an exhibition of seminal nude photographs spanning the career of German-born British photographer Bill Brandt (1904-1983). The exhibition will open on Friday, March 12, 2021, and remain on view through Saturday, May 8, 2021. Composed of 35 photographs, the exhibition explores Brandt&rsquos longitudinal study of the nude feminine form between 1945-1979. The accompanying gallery publication will feature an essay by Martina Droth, Deputy Director and Chief Curator at the Yale Center for British Art, and Paul Messier, Head of the Lens Media Lab at the Institute for the Preservation of Cultural Heritage at Yale University.
Bill Brandt first gained recognition as a photojournalist in the 1930s and 1940s, capturing images of all levels of British society for magazines like Lilliput, Picture Post, and Harper&rsquos Bazaar. After turning his focus to nude photography for over a decade, he published his milestone photo book Perspective of Nudes (1961), and in 1969 he was the subject of a major retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, which traveled internationally. Brandt&rsquos first exhibition at Marlborough New York in 1976 was a critical turning point in situating his work within the context of fine art.
Initially influenced by the work of Man Ray, Brandt&rsquos earliest experiments with nude photography took place in Paris before the Second World War. But it wasn&rsquot until his return to the genre in 1944, while back in England, that his explorations into the body&rsquos sculptural potential within the two-dimensional space of the photographic print spurred a painstaking, long-term study, largely unencumbered by idealized classical conventions.
Brandt&rsquos concurrent discovery of a Kodak camera with a wide-angle lens, allowing for the use of extreme depth of field along with formal and spatial distortions, provided him with a direction for aesthetic inquiry which would guide the evolution of his nude photography over the years. Such distortions to the feminine body flouted the supposed proportional perfection of the classical nude of western art history, in favor of the more strange and quotidian. Furthermore, his use of stark contrasts between brightly lit forms and dark black shadows suggested an ongoing interplay between strict dichotomies: foreground and background, presence and absence, subject and object.
Later, a second series of nudes would develop from the first, which had mainly been captured in the privacy of London interiors. Inspired by travels in France and his own resulting work in landscape photography, these later images analogize and juxtapose the forms and textures of the feminine nude with and against the organic forms of the harsh, stony beaches of southern England and northern France.
Bill Brandt is currently the subject of a retrospective exhibition organized by KBr Fundación MAPFRE, Barcelona (2020-21), traveling to Versicherungskammer Kulturstiftung, Munich (March - May 2021) Sala Recoletos Fundación MAPFRE, Madrid (June - September 2021) and FOAM, Amsterdam (September 2022 - January 2023) as well as Bill Brandt / Henry Moore, organized by the Yale Center for British Art in partnership with The Hepworth Wakefield, accompanied by a major new book published by Yale University Press.
Bill Brandt: A Life
In this lengthy biography of Bill Brandt, author Paul Delany presents the renowned British photographer as a shy and complex individual. Brandt was born in Hamburg, Germany as Hermann Wilhelm Brandt in 1909. His father’s family was successful in banking and international trade, while his mother’s kin were members of the Hamburg governing class, thus Brandt and his five siblings lived their early days according to the highest bourgeois standards. As Delany suggests, “it was a life of wealth, comfort and order of lavish food and drink” (15). Yet despite (or because of) this privilege, Brandt spent the duration of his life actively trying to escape this past.
Delany’s description of Brandt’s childhood has all the makings of a colorful Freudian case study. He was a sensitive and thoughtful boy who was constantly subjected to the whims of a despotic father. Unable to seek protection from his vulnerable mother, he consequently sought comfort in the arms of his beloved nanny. Although Brandt found some respite upon the elder Brandt’s internment as an enemy-alien (because he was of English birth) for the duration of the First World War, as soon as the Brandt family patriarch returned the boy was sent away to military-like boarding school where he apparently suffered innumerable humiliations. “There is ample evidence,” Delany argues, “that Brandt suffered a psychic wound . . . something so hurtful that it affected every area of his life afterwards” (24). Finally, just as he was finishing at the treacherous Bismarckschule, Brandt was diagnosed with severe tuberculosis and was admitted to a sanatorium where he stayed for four years under the care of a draconian German physician.
For Brandt, Delany argues, the aforementioned doctor’s cruelty, his own father’s tyranny, and his abuse at boarding school led him to reject Germany at a very deep level. For the rest of his life he therefore worked to obliterate his own history. When he recovered from tuberculosis, he went to Vienna, where he was apprenticed to a portrait photographer. He then moved to Paris and became an assistant to Man Ray. Using his British citizenship (granted because of his father), he finally landed in London in 1934 and re-named himself “Bill” Brandt. He subsequently refused to speak German, changed the story of his birth, and would never allow himself to be tape-recorded in interviewsfor fear his accent would betray him.
Brandt, however, could not erase these experiences entirely. As Delany argues, the trauma he endured as a child and young adult plagued him psychologically through his later life. For instance, he suffered extreme neediness and could never be without the affection of at least two women (in fact, he lived much of his British life in a ménage a trois with first wife Eva Brandt and mistress Marjorie Beckett). He also developed intense sexual obsessions, which are illustrated particularly well in his photographs of nudes from the 1940s and 1970s (his Bound Nude of 1977/80 is an excellent example, depicting a naked woman propped in a corner, tied-up, and hooded). Moreover, as he grew older, he suffered more and more from a debilitating paranoia.
Owing to the fact that Brandt was always an extremely private individual, and became more so in later life, it is truly remarkable that Delany could produce such a lengthy and detailed biography. Yet Delany’s depth is also problematic. Because Brandt did not leave behind any record from which to gather information about his life other than his photographs (for instance, letters in an archive, etc.), Delany’s attempts to analyze basic facts are often elaborated with speculation rather than reasoned scrutiny. For example, when he describes the role of Brandt’s nanny in his childhood home, instead of admitting his lack of information, he casually suggests that:
the nanny might well be a pretty and submissive girl, whose affection for her charges could easily catch the eye of her master. The mother might not find out what her husband was up to, or might not have enough power to drive out her rival, as in the enduring ménage-a-trois for which the household of Karl Marx was notorious. It was not unheard of for the father to arrange for his sons to be sexually initiated by one of the female servants who had also served his own needs (17).
These suppositions appear even more overdone after it is made clear that Delany does not have enough facts about the nanny even to know her name, let alone the salacious details of her place in the household.
Much of Delany’s analysis revolves around Brandt’s obsession with erasing his German past and trying to become English. The terms “English,” “England,” and “Englishness” are thus deployed frequently throughout the book. Yet beyond his mere use of these terms, Delany does little to analyze what they actually mean. Using “England” over “Britain” or “Englishness” over “Britishness,” however, is quite a significant choice. Indeed, for the last twenty years, historians and critics have battled over these terms and the implications of their use. They are not, in other words, merely descriptive. “English” (as well as “England” and “Englishness”) connotes those characteristics (real or imagined) historically associated with the southern-most country of the British Isles: largely middle- and upper-class, protestant, white, heterosexual, colonial-minded, and quite patriarchal. Britain, however, is a more inclusive term that indicates the peoples and identity politics of Scotland, Wales, and England (and using “United Kingdom” would further add Ireland). 1 Thus as David Peters Corbett, Antony Easthope, and Simon Gikandi amongst others have argued, to choose one term over the other has quite serious political, social, and cultural implications. 2 And although I have no doubt that Brandt attempted to specifically embrace England rather than Britain, I do not think that Delany is concerned about the difference.
Finally, this book disappointingly follows the well-worn path of ascribing innate genius to the male artist. This is to say, because Delany chose to investigate Brandt on a psychological rather than a socio-historical level, the book contains little or no reference to those factors that allowed white male artists to succeed many times more often than their female counterparts in early twentieth-century Europe. Brandt’s accomplishment, in other words, is never attributed to the patriarchal organization of society, issues of wealth and class, skin color, or sexual orientation. Rather, Delany’s argument primarily details the photographer and the workings of his individual mind, leading the reader to infer that he assumes Brandt’s talent was purely instinctive This is never the case. More seriously, however, as Linda Nochlin, Rozsika Parker, and Griselda Pollock have argued, histories of art in which men are innately destined toward creativity and invention, always leave the opposite implied: that women are essentially intellectual nonentities, merely fated to use their biological skills to become wives and mothers. 3 Thus, although Delany’s exploration of Brandt’s psychology is interesting (sometimes even inspiring a feverish page-turning), perhaps he should have also investigated the photographer’s life from a wider, socially-inspired perspective, not least of all to avoid accusations of prejudice.