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Bill Brandt Working Methods

Brandt's photographs are - apart from the series Perspective Of Nudes (1945-60) - relatively straightforward. He did not adopt the unusual viewpoints of some Modernist photographers. The chief hallmark of his social documentary photographs is formal clarity, often achieved in the darkroom, by cropping under the enlarger and by emphasising tonal contrasts in printing. His liking for strong geometrical structure was no doubt linked to the chief means of distribution of his photographs - the printed page, either in book form, or in magazines like Picture Post or Lilliput.

An example of the way he would crop a dynamic image out of a larger negative is his view of Hadrian's Wall from the 1940s. The full negative is shown at the left and the cropped version (published in Brandt's Literary Britain in 1951) at the right.

Bill Brandt, 'Hadrian's Wall', 1943, full frame. © Bill Brandt Archive Ltd

Bill Brandt, 'Hadrian's Wall', 1943, full frame. © Bill Brandt Archive Ltd

Bill Brandt, 'Hadrian's Wall', 1943, cropped view. © Bill Brandt Archive Ltd

Bill Brandt, 'Hadrian's Wall', 1943, cropped view. © Bill Brandt Archive Ltd

Brandt also used montage, combining portions of two negatives in one print. A striking example can be found in his first book, The English At Home (1936). The seagull, impossible to photograph with clarity under such low light conditions, was montaged onto a scene of the Thames in fog. A few years later Brandt added a morning sun to the scene. This was required for a feature in the magazine Lilliput, in which Victorian London (as seen by Gustave Doré) was compared with the London of the 1930s.

Bill Brandt, 'Early Morning on the River, London Bridge', about 1935, 1. © Bill Brandt Archive Ltd.

Bill Brandt, 'Early Morning on the River, London Bridge', about 1935, 1. © Bill Brandt Archive Ltd.


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Bill Brandt, 'Early Morning on the River, London Bridge', about 1935, 2. © Bill Brandt Archive Ltd.
Bill Brandt, 'Street Scene or Couple in Peckham', 1936. © Bill Brandt Archive Ltd.

Bill Brandt, 'Street Scene or Couple in Peckham', 1936. © Bill Brandt Archive Ltd.

Another characteristic of Brandt's documentary photographs is his use of his family and friends to act out social roles. Thus, his brother Rolf and sister-in-law Ester are often to be found in Brandt's early books, for example, as an arguing couple in A Night In London (1936).

 In 1945 Brandt bought a special Kodak camera in a second-hand camera shop in Covent Garden, London. The camera had been designed to enable untrained police staff to photograph crime scenes. It had a very wide-angle lens. Compared to the standard lens of the Rolleiflex camera Brandt had used for his documentary photographs, the Kodak allowed him, he wrote, to 'see like a mouse, a fish or a fly'. He first used it for photographing nudes in interiors and then continued on the beaches of southern England and France. Later he used a Hasselblad with a Superwide-angle lens.

Brandt was aware of the aesthetic and technical rules some other photographers imposed on themselves. For example, Henri Cartier-Bresson championed the use of available light (rather than added, artificial light), unposed social situations and printing from the whole (uncropped) negative.

Edward Weston printed by contact from the whole 10x8 inch negative, with no retouching. However, Brandt wrote in riposte to these influential orthodoxies, 'Photography is not a sport. It has no rules. Everything must be dared and tried.'

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