Text from Michael Frizot, A New History of Photography
Contrary to legend, Bill Brandt was born not in London, but in Hamburg, Germany, on May 3, 1904. The asthmatic son of a banking family, he came to his own country for the first time in 1931, having lived in a sanatorium in Davos and in Vienna and Paris, where he was Man Ray's assistant.
His ambition was to become an independent professional photographer. His first book, The English at Home, appeared in 1936. Based on the portrayal of types and stereotypes, this was a kind of manifesto of British society, through which Brandt undertook to show the British their real faces. The complete opposite of the ideal motherland of his dreams, he discovered a divided people, a stratified society with a well-defined caste system, in the grip of economic crisis. Two years later he published A Night in London; in the same way as his friend Brassaï, Brandt enjoyed the uncertain, magical lighting effects of the night. Prowling around almost invisibly, he recorded London, revealing social inequality. He did not hesitate to ask his close friends to pose for him for certain situations.
In 1937 Bill Brandt traveled north, where he undertook at his own expense a photoreportage on the economic and social situation in the great cities of the Midlands and Tyneside. There he took his most memorable instantaneous photographs, such as the one of the emblematic figure of a scavenger for coal returning home, a modern myth of Sisyphus.
During the war Brandt was employed by the Home Office to show how well Londoners taking refuge in air-raid shelters were coping with air raids. He was also commissioned to produce a major photographic inventory of the capital's important buildings. The work was carried out during the black-out, without flash, rather in the style of Atget. This reportage, notable for its use of light and shade, was published in Picture Post and emphasized Brandt's interest in social documentation.
During the second half of his career Bill Brandt devoted himself to portraiture, landscapes, and nude photography. It was his revolutionary treatment of the last category which brought him notoriety. His first nudes were photographed with an old wooden plate camera which the police had formerly used, lacking a shutter and equipped with a wide-angle lens. These photos seemed inspired by Balthus, Hitchcock, and Orson Wells. Their dramatic atmosphere is enhanced by the unusual viewpoints of the architectural backgrounds, imbuing them with a menacing atmosphere of murder or suffocation, perhaps connected with the asthma from which Brandt suffered all his life. These unnatural perspectives, which shocked people at the time, based on the enlargement of volumes and close-up treatment of details, may be compared with the experiments of Picasso, the forms of Henry Moore, and, of course, the distorted work of Andre Kertész. Increasingly turning to abstract photography, from 1951 to 1960, when he gave up nude work, Brandt undertook exterior views (on the beaches of East Sussex, Normandy, and the south of France), in which he brought together the eternal themes of women and the sea, birthplace and symbol of creation.
At the same time, Brandt was taking portraits for Lilliput, Picture Post, and Harper's Bazaar of the artists, intellectuals, and writers whom he admired. He detested naturalism. Rather he sought to decipher enigmas, and in his work portraiture is combined with a quasi-judicial chronicle of events. Going beyond external appearances, he tried to decode the mysteries concealed behind a face, as in his intriguing portrait of Francis Bacon (1963), far from a straightforward rendering of the subject.
His passion for literature led him to illustrate Literary Britain (1951), which unfurls naturally with romantic, tortured scenes evoking Wuthering Heights. At Stonehenge, or on Skye, Brandt demonstrated his fascination for untamed sites, those providing a sense of majesty, the sublime, the infinite. The cult of nature fostered the attraction that open spaces had for him, allowing him to bring out the emotional appeal of the landscape. This aspect of his work reached its high point when he chose 200 twentieth-century photographs for "The Land", a project completed shortly before his death in London on December 20, 1983.
In the context of the art of his time, whose aesthetic experiments are reflected in his work, Bill Brandt was one of the first photographers to have created an individual style. While allowing the vocabulary of his art to evolve, he consciously worked at creating a personal photographic language. Based on the alliance between form and content, the fruit of experiment, exploration of the imaginary and an ever deeper investigation of the same themes, his work is notable for its splendid use of strong contrasts and densely printed images.
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