But it is Bill Brandt that I want to single out, not because of his humour (he seems to have lacked in this department) but for the effect of his approach and style on subsequent British photographers. It is difficult to overstate the impact that Brandt had on the subsequent course of British photography. Ray-Jones cited him as a major influence and it’s not difficult to see why. Brandt’s pictures must have been inspirational to a young photographer and artist in a late 1950s England struggling to break out of post-war austerity and a rigid class structure and social system.
Widely regarded as England’s greatest photographer, Bill Brandt 1 laid down important trails for the development of English photography.
Brandt said ..
”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”.
We see two under-parlour maids ready to serve dinner. A sense of social hierarchy is clear through the uniforms, postures and averted gazes. But underlying there is more: As Walker Evans saw, there is wit and theatre. Nigel Henderson goes further: ..”eyes loaded like blunderbusses”. A simple “two of a kind” photograph, but with an air of sullenness and a “suffering-fools-gladly” undertone. The point here is that it combines poetic interpretation with social observation. It is not neutral reportage. It parodies the English in the manner of the British sitcom “Upstairs, Downstairs“.
Or take a different social class:
This photograph, “Cocktails in a Surrey Garden,” was to presage Tony Ray-Jones’s similar photograph taken at Glyndebourne forty years later. All is order, straight and correct, in place, in control, Nature included.
And here is the thing: Brandt’s pictures are “not only seen but made.” 9 His taste for printing on hard papers, his affinity for Brassai-like chiaroscuro and his framing all make for extrovert pictures. His signature high-contrast, gritty technique is best seen in his northern works:
The coal searchers photograph, revisited in the 1970s by Don McCullin 10 brings to bear “the same thing as a poet brings to the writing of a poem…a way of feeling”. 11 Blackness and magnificence 12 is what Brandt liked about going to the North of England: 13
A dystopian vision? Possibly. His photo-story in a 1948 edition of Lilliput entitled “Hail, Hell and Halifax” would suggest so. Brandt was aware of the technical constraints other photographers imposed on themselves. For example, Edward Weston printed by contact from the whole 10×8 inch negative, with no retouching. Cartier-Bresson used available light only and the 50mm lens without cropping. Brandt had no time for such constraints. ‘Photography is not a sport. It has no rules. Everything must be dared and tried.’
And so-called “rules” he did break: Brandt’s famous Lambeth Walk photograph is choreographed. Some night pictures are doctored day pictures. Other images include Brandt’s friends and family as actors. Many have suggested that these “deceptions”, if that is what they are, devalue the work. 14
Perhaps, though, it makes more sense to read them as products of his Surrealist sensibility, a blurring of the lines between the real and imagined (what is “real” after all?), photography as an act of creation. Deception is a strong word as it presupposes ill-intent. Brandt was more concerned with plumbing the deep recesses of the imagination through the power of images.
Brandt’s surrealist tendencies were a powerful creative force within him. He cared little for the conventions of reportage and pictorial photography. In this regard his interest in film is very telling. The film collaborations of Luis Buñuel and Salvador Dalí: Un Chien Andalou (1928) and L’Age d’or (1930); and in particular Orson Welles’ first film, Citizen Kane (1941), which had its roots in German Expressionism, were to have lasting impressions on him.
He intimated: “When Citizen Kane was first shown I’d never seen a film in which real rooms were used and you could see everything, the ceiling, and terrific perspective, it was all there. It was quite revolutionary and I was very much inspired by it and I thought: I must take photographs like that”. 15
With its inherent social contradictions the England of the 1930s and 1940s must have been brimming with surrealist possibilities. Brandt had landed home.
Brandt’s legacy has been significant across a wide spectrum of photography. His work on nudes influenced Newton and his street work, Robert Frank. But it is to English photography through Tony Ray-Jones and subsequently Parr where we see the lasting testimony of Bill Brandt.
Coming to England from France, Brandt, who had studied under Man Ray, brought with him a fusion between surrealism and reportage that had so influenced Cartier-Bresson.
“Looking back now”, he said “one can see that already two trends were emerging: the poetic school, of which Man Ray and Edward Weston were the leaders, and the documentary moment-of-truth school. I was attracted by both” 16.
Brandt’s surrealistic style was to find particular resonance in a class-conscious English society. In a sense he could hardly have alighted in a better place and a better time. And what better medium than photographs for distorting aspects of life in such a way as to defy left-brain logic in the process of constructing a percept? “… even the most prosaic photograph, filtered through the prism of Surrealist sensibility, might easily be dislodged from its usual context and irreverently assigned a new role”, says a review of the impact of surrealism on photography. 17 And hereby started a new genre of photography of streets based on a break from pictorialism.
- For a comprehensive Brandt resource site see: Bill Brandt ↩
- Brandt’s difficult childhood is well documented. Born to a domineering father in Hamburg (who had been born in England), Brandt rejected his German upbringing, which according to his biographer – (See this Guardian article for a review of Delany’s biography) culminated in 4 years at a sanatorium and psycho-analysis under Wilhelm Stekel. (See Wilhelm Stekel link). This must have had far-reaching consequences on Brandt’s approach to life in general and photography in particular. It’s guesswork but it has been said that what Stekel did for Brandt was to “extend the concept of symbolism to the everyday” – See Ian Jeffrey (Jeffrey 1993, page 18). See also Beetles and Huxley: “Stekel’s approach to psychoanalysis may have had a wider and more fundamental influence on Brandt’s photography” ↩
- Brandt turned to photography in the Paris of 1929, having been introduced to Man Ray by Ezra Pound. Brandt then worked for several years as an assistant to Man Ray. And what a time to be in Paris! Paris attracted a whole generation of avant-garde artists, all keen to exchange ideas and experiments in the creation of a ‘new vision’ of photography. From France, Jacques-André Boiffard, Laure Albin Guillot, Maurice Tabard, and Emmanuel Sougez and of course Cartier-Bresson. From Germany, Marianne Breslauer, Annelise Kretschmer, Germaine Krull, Erwin Blumenfeld, Gisèle Freund, and Wols. From Hungary, Brassaï, André Kertész, François Kollar, Ergy Landau, and André Steiner. From Russia, George Hoyningen-Huene and Albert Rudomine. Artists from almost everywhere: and last but not least Berenice Abbott and Man Ray from the United States. Brandt found himself immersed in an atmosphere of experimentation in which photography finally came of age and broke from pictorial tradition, asserting its modernist identity. Photography flirted with abstraction and started to build its own visual language. Graphic imagery, superimposition, solarisation, photomontage, and challenging angles – nothing was outside of acceptable practice. ↩
- Later there was to be a counter trend of neo- classicism ↩
- Amongst all of this, the surrealism of Man Ray branded its mark on Brandt: “I do not photograph nature. I photograph my visions” said Man Ray. “Man Ray – Prophet of the Avant-Garde | American Masters”. PBS. 2005-09-17. Retrieved 2012-01-06 ↩
- André Breton in his Surrealist Manifesto described how he wanted to combine the conscious and subconscious into a new “absolute reality”. He first used the word surrealism to describe work found to be a “fusion of elements of fantasy with elements of the modern world to form a kind of superior reality – de la Croix, Horst and Richard G. Tansey. Art Through the Ages. Atlanta: Harcourt, Brace, & World. 1970 ↩
- It is easy to surmise how this attitude might have struck a chord with Brandt. The one thing that psychoanalysis would have made very apparent is the small extent to which people are in command of their own destinies. Later his photography was to show a sense of people being trapped within their own worlds, whether class, social standing or job. This sense reminds us of contemporary George Orwell who was writing about “things which people do not want to hear”, an insistence on unpleasant facts. Original preface to Animal Farm; as published in George Orwell: Some Materials for a Bibliography (1953) by Ian R. Willison ↩
- Brandt arrived in England in the early 1930s. Two collections of photographs were to have a lasting impact on many: The English at Home – Brandt, Bill, 1936, (London: B. T. Batsford Ltd) and A Night in London – Brandt, Bill, 1938: Story of a London Night in Sixty-Four Photographs, (London, Paris & New York) – In his introduction to “Bill Brandt, Shadow of Light” – (Shadow of Light by Bill Brandt page 11, Gordon Fraser 1977 ISBN 0 900406 658) Cyril Connolly describes Brandt as a “combination of lyric poet and historian”. The new photography of 1930s Paris had produced two tendencies: the reflective “school” in which poetry predominates and the moment of truth school emphasising the documentary aspects of photography. At one end of the scale, Man Ray, Atget and Brassai, and at the other, Cartier-Bresson and Capa. Poet versus Reporter, although no photographer was wholly within one tendency as shown by Cartier-Bresson’s surrealist tendencies. Brandt above all straddled both tendencies in roughly equal measure ↩
- essay by Mark Haworth-Booth, Shadow of Light op cit 1976. ↩
- In Sleeping with Ghosts, Jonathan Cape 1994 ↩
- Introduction by Alan Ross, Bill Brandt Portraits, gordon Fraser photographic monographs no. 11, 1982 ↩
- Paul Delaney – Bill Brandt – A Life” ↩
- following JB Priestley English Journey 1934 ↩
- David Hockney for example – “The Photography of Bill Brandt, Jay, Bill and David Hockney, publ. Harry N Abrams; ISBN 10: 0810941090 / ISBN 13: 9780810941090 ↩
- Quoted in Delany 2004, page 208 ↩
- see http://www.billbrandt.com/Library/statementbybrand.html ↩
- see for a history of the relationship between photography and surrealism: http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/hd/phsr/hd_phsr.htm ↩