Photography history ‘follow Friday’: Bill Brandt

“In my portraits I try to avoid the fleeting expression and vivacity of a snapshot.”

For me Brandt typified mastery of monochrome in a way that made me determined to learn the business of developing my own film and making my own prints. There is a darkness and contrast in his shots that, in my early years of consuming photographs, reminded me a little of the work of Brassai. But Brandt mystified me to an extent Brassai never would. Brandt had on one side of his portfolio the gritty landscapes of inter-war Yorkshire, social documentaries of a Britain on the cusp of another great conflict. Then there were the nudes: often visually distorted and a component of the landscape, stretched on beaches – their smooth contrasty forms like another stone. They were the photographic equivalent of scuplture: Henry Moore in 2-D.

Soon after I really first got to hear Brandt speak about his work, as part of the 1983 BBC ‘Masters of Photography’ series, he was dead and gone. His work still flashes through my head at least once a week. If I see a nude in contrasty monochrome, I instantly think of Brandt. Much of what I like about Don McCullin’s later, non-war output – the pictures in his book ‘Perspectives’, taken across the UK, was rooted in an appreciation of and a visual aesthetic laid down in my head by Brandt’s work.

You’ll fing plenty of Brandt’s images online either at The Bill Brandt Estate or via a Google image search.

Enjoy the videos. I am so pleased the BBC chose to make these films when they did, or we wouldn’t have this record of Brandt talking about his own work. The first part is above, you can find the other three parts here:

Born in Hamburg, Germany, son of a British father and German mother, Brandt grew up during World War I; he later disowned his German heritage and would claim he was born in South London. Shortly after the war, he contracted tuberculosis and spent much of his youth in a sanatorium in Davos, Switzerland. He traveled to Vienna to undertake a course of treatment for tuberculosis by psychoanalysis. He was in any case pronounced cured and was taken under the wing of socialite Eugenie Schwarzwald. 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 Brandt would assist in 1930.

In 1933 Brandt moved to London and began documenting all levels of British society. This kind of documentary was uncommon at that time. Brandt published two books showcasing this work, The English at Home (1936) and A Night in London (1938). 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. To mark the arrival of peace in 1945 he began a celebrated series of nudes. 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.

Bill Brandt is widely considered to be one of the most important British photographers of the 20th century. He died in 1983, shortly after being filmed by the BBC for their ‘Masters of Photography’ series.

In 2004 he received a major retrospective exhibition at the Victoria & Albert Museum in London.


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