Bill Brandt Biography
'For any young photographer at that time, Paris was the centre of the world. Those were the exciting early days when the French poets and surrealists recognised the possibilities of photography.'
Bill Brandt was born in Hamburg on 2 May 1904 to an English father and a German mother. He made the watercolour painting of the family house in 1918 when he was 14. Brandt was bullied at school after the First World War. This experience and the rise of Nazism caused him to disown his German background. In later life he said that he was born in south London.
Brandt probably took up photography as an amateur enthusiast when he was a patient undergoing treatment for tuberculosis in a sanatorium in Davos, Switzerland in the 1920s.
In 1927 he travelled to Vienna, where he was taken up by Dr Eugenie Schwarzwald. She found him a position in a portrait studio. It is likely that she also introduced him to the American poet Ezra Pound. Pound apparently gave Brandt an immensely valuable introduction to Man Ray.
Brandt assisted Man Ray in Paris for several months in 1930. Here he witnessed the heyday of Surrealist film and grasped the new poetic possibilities of photography.
Some early photographs are modelled on works by the French photographer Eugène Atget (1857-1927). Atget made a living selling his photographs, mainly of old Paris, to painters, designers and libraries.
In the 1920s he was taken up by Man Ray and other Surrealists as a major photographer in his own right. In the photograph Flea Market Brandt reworks a favourite Atget subject.
Other early Brandt photographs experiment with angular modernist styles and night photography.
He travelled in continental Europe with Eva Boros, whom he had met in the Vienna portrait studio. They married in Barcelona in 1932.
Night photography became one of Brandt's specialities and this may be his earliest experiment in the genre. Here he posed his first wife Eva Boros as a nightwalker in the red light district of Hamburg. Family and friends were to play many roles in his social documentary scenes.
The English at Home (1936)
'The extreme social contrast, during those years before the war, was, visually, very inspiring for me. I started by photographing in London, the West End, the suburbs, the slums.'
Brandt visited England during the late 1920s. In 1934 he and his wife settled in Belsize Park, north London. Brandt adopted Britain as his home and it became the subject of his greatest photographs.
Although he photographed on occasion for the News Chronicle and Weekly Illustrated, Brandt was not in demand as a photojournalist until the foundation of Lilliput (1937) and Picture Post (1938) by the great picture-editor Stefan Lorant.
The majority of Brandt's earliest English photographs were first published in Brandt’s The English at Home (1936).
The young photographer used his family contacts - for example, his banker uncles - to gain access to a variety of subjects. The book contained a number of pointed social contrasts, such as the high life presented on the front cover and a poor family shown on the back cover.
Raymond Mortimer's introduction to the book praised Brandt for the freshness of his observation and the acuteness with which he saw and photographed such contrasts.
The photograph Parlourmaid and Under-parlourmaid Ready to Serve Dinner was taken in the house of one of Brandt’s banker uncles. Brandt's photo-essay The Perfect Parlourmaid appeared in Picture Post in1938.
The photograph was first published, opposite a Matisse painting of a dinner table, in Verve magazine in 1938.
'This is Bill Brandt striking home in every sense', remarked Walker Evans.
A variation of this scene, in which the parlourmaid (whose name was Pratt), wears a light coloured tunic, was published in Picture Post in 1938. The photograph shows that she was testing the temperature with a thermometer.
A Night in London (1938)
'I photographed pubs, common lodging houses at night, theatres, Turkish baths, prisons and people in their bedrooms. London has changed so much that some of these pictures now have a period charm almost of another century.'
Brandt's second book, A Night in London, was published in London and Paris in 1938. It was based on Paris de Nuit (1936) by Brassaï, whom Brandt greatly admired.
The book tells the story of a London night, moving between different social classes and making use – as with The English at Home – of Brandt's family and friends.
Night photography was a new genre of the period, opened up by the newly developed flashbulb (the 'Vacublitz' was manufactured in Britain from 1930). Brandt generally preferred to use portable tungsten lamps called photo-floods. He claimed to have enough cable to run the length of Salisbury Cathedral.
James Bone introduced Brandt's book and described the new, electric city: 'Floodlit attics and towers, oiled roadways shining like enamel under the street lights and headlights, the bright lacquer and shining metals of motorcars, illuminated signs…'
Brandt often used the darkroom to alter his photographs in decisive way. For example, in the photograph Policeman in a Dockland Alley he used the 'day for night' technique employed by cinematographers to transform images photographed in daylight into night scenes.
'He was pushing his bicycle along a footpath through a desolate wasteland between Hebburn and Jarrow. Loaded on the crossbar was a sack of small coal, all that he had found after a day’s search on the slag -heaps.'
Spurred by the Jarrow Crusade of 1936 and reading George Orwell's essays and J.B. Priestley's book An English Journey (1934), Brandt visited the industrial north of England for the first time in 1937.
Priestley described the condition of the north east, where the effects of the Depression and the closure of ship-building yards had resulted in 80% unemployment: 'The whole town looked as if it had entered a perpetual penniless bleak Sabbath. The men wore the drawn masks of prisoners of war'. Brandt carefully documented coal-searching - the retrieval of small lumps of coal from spoil heaps - and the domestic life of miners.
Coal-searcher Going Home to Jarrow eloquently captured the Depression. It was published in Picture Post ten years later to symbolise a very different time - the onset of the post-war 'Age of Austerity.'
Blackout and Blitz
'In 1939, at the beginning of the war, I was back in London photographing the blackout. The darkened town, lit only by moonlight, looked more beautiful than before or since.'
Bill Brandt met Tom Hopkinson, then assistant editor of Weekly Illustrated, in 1936. Hopkinson, later knighted for services to journalism, became Brandt's editor at Lilliput and Picture Post.
He described Brandt in a profile published in Lilliput in 1942 as having 'a voice as loud as a moth and the gentlest manner to be found outside a nunnery'. Brandt would propose picture-stories for both magazines and often sequence his photo-essays, sometimes also contributing text.
The blackout photographs, probably Brandt's own idea, were made during the 'phoney war' period, after war had been declared but before serious hostilities between Britain and Germany had begun. A second set was made in 1942.
Elizabeth Bowen, one of Brandt’s favourite writers, wrote in her story 'Mysterious Kôr': 'Full moon drenched the city and searched it; there was not a niche left to stand in. The effect was remorseless: London looked like the moon's capital – shallow, cratered, extinct…And the moon did more: it exonerated and beautified'.
After the London Blitz began, Brandt was commissioned to record bomb shelters by the Ministry of Information. His photographs were sent to Washington as part of the British government's attempt to bring the US into the war on the allied side.
Cyril Connolly published Brandt's shelter photographs in Horizon in February 1942. In 1966 Connolly wrote that '"Elephant and Castle 3.45 a.m." eternalises for me the dreamlike monotony of wartime London.' Brandt himself recalled 'the long alley of intermingled bodies, with the hot, smelly air and continual murmur of snores'.
'When I have found a landscape which I want to photograph, I wait for the right season, the right weather, and the right time of day or night, to get the picture which I know to be there.'
Suspended social life, long railway journeys and the need to reaffirm ideas of national identity all encouraged a return to the literary classics.
Brandt shared in this. He read and admired the writings of the Brontë sisters, Thomas Hardy, George Crabbe and John Clare, some of whose poems he knew by heart.
From 1945 onwards Brandt contributed a series of landscape photographs, accompanied by texts selected from British writers, to Lilliput.
Other landscapes appeared in Picture Post and the American magazine Harper's Bazaar.
Although he never met Brandt, the novelist Lawrence Durrell attempted to persuade the leading poetry publishers, Faber & Faber, to publish Brandt’s landscapes. In 1950 Cassell commissioned Brandt to complete the series, which was published the following year with an introduction by John Hayward.
Brandt greatly admired Edward Weston: the deep shadows and simplified, rhythmic forms of Brandt’s landscapes may owe something to the Californian master.
Bill Brandt waited years for the opportunity to photograph Stonehenge under snow. His image provided the cover for the issue of Picture Post for 19 April 1947. This dealt with Britain in crisis, as post-war euphoria gave way to the Age of Austerity.
'I always take portraits in my sitter’s own surroundings. I concentrate very much on the picture as a whole and leave the sitter rather to himself. I hardly talk and barely look at him.'
Although Brandt's career began, decisively, with his close-up portrait of Ezra Pound in 1928, portraiture flowered in his career only in the 1940s.
He used a Rolleiflex (introduced in 1928): its ground glass provided a clear view of the subject and the 2 ¼ x 2 ¼ inch negative gave Brandt the latitude he liked for darkroom work, especially cropping.
The portraits were commissioned by Lilliput, Picture Post and Harper’s Bazaar. His portrait of Dylan Thomas, for example, appeared in a feature on Young Poets of Democracy in Lilliput in December 1941. A Gallery of Literary Artists appeared in the same magazine in November 1949, including the Sitwells, Robert Graves, Norman Douglas, E.M. Forster and Graham Greene. Lilliput also published portraits of visual artists and composers.
In the 1960s Brandt used a Hasselblad with a superwide-angle lens, which gave his portraits a dynamic edge appropriate to the new decade.
Perspective of Nudes
'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.'
Bill Brandt experimented with photography of the nude in the 1930s and early 1940s. He made a decisive breakthrough in 1944 when he acquired a mahogany and brass camera with a wide-angle lens.
He enthusiastically acknowledged a debt to the wide-angle, deep-focus cinematography of Orson Welles' Citizen Kane (1941).
The camera, a 1931 Kodak used by the police for crime scene records, allowed him to see, he said, 'like a mouse, a fish or a fly'.
The nudes reveal Brandt's intimate knowledge of the École de Paris - particularly Man Ray, Picasso, Matisse and Arp - together with his admiration for Henry Moore.
He published Perspective of Nudes in 1961. It featured nudes in domestic interiors and studios, and on the beaches of East Sussex and northern and southern France. He used a Superwide Hasselblad for the beach photographs. In 1977-8 Brandt added further nudes, published in Nudes, 1945-80.
Brandt used professional models but also sometimes family and friends. His second wife, the journalist Marjorie Beckett, modelled for the Campden Hill photograph.
Brandt's last years were spent reissuing his work in a series of books published by Gordon Fraser. He taught Royal College of Art photography students and continued to accept commissions for portraits. He selected an exhibition for the Victoria and Albert Museum titled The Land: 20th Century Landscape Photographs (1975) and was working on another show, Bill Brandt’s Literary Britain, when he died after a short illness in 1983. The exhibition became a memorial tribute to Brandt the following year.
In 2004 the V&A was showing Bill Brandt: A Centenary Retrospective in the Exhibition Galleries and Other Sides of Bill Brandt in the Photography Gallery (both 24 March - 25 July 2004).