...everything is allowed and everything should be tried.
-- Bill Brandt
Bill Brandt's photographs remain some of the most instantly recognisable and iconic images of the last century. From his journalistic early work right through to the surreal nudes and portraits of his later years, Brandt always seems to manage to capture the essence of a scene, unveiling its beauty in ways that would pass by a casual observer. He also manages to infuse many of the photographs with his mischievous sense of humour, twisting everyday scenes into amusing caricatures and farces.
Bill Brandt was born on 2nd May 1904 in Hamburg to an English father and German mother. During the First World War, his English heritage meant he was bullied, which left Brandt reticent and bitter. This, combined with the later rise of Nazism, meant he was loathe to admit his birthplace, often claiming he was born in London.
In the 1920s, Brandt contracted tuberculosis, and was sent away by his parents to recover in a Swiss sanatorium. From here, he chose not to return to the economically unstable Germany, but went to Vienna, where he got a lowly job in a portrait studio. It was during this time that Brandt made many valuable connections, including the photographer Man Ray, a leading proponent of surrealism, who introduced him to the previously unsounded depths of creativity open to photography as a medium. He travelled back to Paris with Ray to assist for a few months, gaining valuable experience and witnessing first hand the height of the surrealist movement.
After Paris, Brandt went travelling around Europe with Eva Boros, whom Brandt had met in Vienna. In 1932 they were married in Barcelona, and two years later, they moved to London.
Prior to the Second World War, Brandt found some work as a photojournalist, mainly for magazines such as Lilliput and Picture Post, as well as releasing a couple of books. This work persisted throughout the war, along with a number of contracts from the Ministry of Defence to chronicle the conditions in London's bomb shelters, in an effort to prompt the USA into action.
This period of exposure meant that after 1945, Brandt could afford to be more discerning when choosing projects and develop his artistic style, moving away from the dry photojournalism contracts which he had accepted previously. His fame continued to increase, with a number of his books being published and a slew of exhibitions in the 60s and 70s, establishing him as a heavyweight in British art.
In later life, Brandt continued his work, focussing ever more on surrealism and nudes, and arranged for re-publications of his previous projects. He died on December 20, 1983.
Obviously, his photographs, spanning half a century, don't fall into particularly neat categories, but here a number of his most famous portfolios.
In England, Brandt was exposed to a wide spectrum of society, from the country homes of his banker uncles to the slums of Lambeth, and he set about photographing the different lives these classes lived. The work was published as a book, The English At Home in 1936. It received widespread acclaim for the freshness of Brandt's approach, as well as interesting lighting and contrasts - a feature that became one of Brandt's trademarks. It offers us a unique glimpse into the meticulously class-based society of inter-war England.
Brandt frequently manages to capture his subjects almost as caricatures, making the overall impression of the collection amusing, although sometimes the images of stereotypically pompous bankers are a little unpalatable, as, I'm sure, Brandt intended.
This collection was inspired by Gyula Halász Brassaï's Paris de Nuit, and captured images of mundane London streets transformed by the strange effect of moonlight on a scene.
It is one of Brandt's most important projects, as the stark use of light and dark, which later made him an icon, was mainly developed during this period. The recent development of the flashbulb, combined with the increasing number of neon lights on the streets of London played to Brandt's strengths. It was also during this period that Brandt first started to use friends and family members as models in his photographs, a practice which continued throughout his career.
The post-Wall Street crash depression meant the industrial north England was a grim place in the inter-war period. In some areas, unemployment was at 80%, and there were numerous demonstrations and marches as the workers tried to alert people to their plight. Like many other artists, Brandt was affected by this acute poverty, unlike anything he'd seen before, and the Midlands and North-East of England formed the basis of this collection.
In an interview, Brandt recalled the extraordinary amiability of these impoverished people, as he was welcomed into miners' and factory workers' homes, where a fair proportion of these photographs are set. Some of the most famous images from this collection are those of the coal-searchers picking through slag heaps for any small lumps of poor quality coal before heaving it for miles back to their homes.
After the war, Brandt acquired an old, shutter-less camera which previously had been used by the police to capture images of crime scenes. Despite its low-tech design, its wide-angle, misshapen lens allowed Brandt to explore panoramic, deep-focus images during the 50s, mainly of nudes. The pictures were often taken from strange angles, with the model adopting an unnatural pose, both of which produced a surreal effect with was only increased by the distorted, elongated bottom left corner of all the images, caused by the poor lens.
It is this work that shows the most direct link back to the work of Man Ray and Pablo Picasso from which Brandt had developed his style in the 20s and 30s.
Later on, Brandt used an even wider angle lens for his many shots of nudes on a beach, which were taken in Sussex and France.
Although one of his first images, back in 1929, had been of the poet Ezra Pound, it was only during the 1960s and 70s that Brandt really concentrated on portraits. His subjects were mostly famous artists, writers and poets, including Graham Greene, Pablo Picasso and an excellent shot of Francis Bacon. Brandt moved away from the more explicitly surreal compositions he'd created for the nudes, instead perfecting his use of contrast to create striking images that stick in the mind.