LONDON — The photographer Bill Brandt (1904–1983) cast an unsparing, imaginative eye on Great Britain in the 20th century, memorializing its besieged, tumultuous, and ultimately revitalized culture through images published in the pages of homey magazines like Picture Post and Lilliput — British equivalents of Life and The Saturday Evening Post.
And yet, as if in defiance of such mainstream platforms, his photographs traffic in enigmas and silences, riddles and obscurities. Refusing to serve up the propagandistic comforts associated with popular photojournalism, he exposed the hidden realties beneath ordinary British lives and landscapes.
Brandt’s Modernist formalism hardly sets him apart from immediate forerunners like Alfred Stieglitz or Edward Steichen, or such generational peers as Edward Weston or Henri Cartier-Bresson. If anything distinguishes Brandt from that crowded field, it is how his pictures hinge on a paradox that remains edgy even today, or maybe especially today, as artists are increasingly called on to answer for their representations.
Brandt’s photographs are often infused with the sense that he secured his subject’s consent through patient seduction. This holds true even in his landscapes and cityscapes, whose mute, resistant structures seem anthropomorphized, surrendering themselves to Brandt’s gaze.
These photographs chart a negotiation between artist and subject, in which physical intimacy preserves a chilly psychological distance, even as the resulting images contain the expressive force of half-disclosed secrets.
The current exhibition, Vintage Works at Michael Hoppen Gallery, focuses on Brandt’s most complex exercises in up-close visual estrangements, featuring rarely seen prints drawn from his family’s collection. The result is a concise exhibition that doubles as a primer for uninitiated visitors who, like me, may have missed the more encompassing retrospective Bill Brandt: Shadow and Light held at The Museum of Modern Art, New York, back in 2013.
Biographers have long puzzled over what motivated the German-born, cosmopolitan Brandt to reside for most of his long life in Great Britain, a nation coping with its waning imperial status and bouts of economic instability. Whatever the reason, it was a fortunate choice. Brandt, as an outsider, may have been better equipped to see that country for what it was rather than what its natives imagined Britain to be.
Brandt’s early years resemble those of Hans Castorp, the anti-hero in Thomas Mann’s novel The Magic Mountain (1924). Both Brandt and Castorp were artistically inclined, upper-class scions to wealthy Hamburg families, and both battled tuberculosis for years in a cushy sanatorium in Davos, Switzerland.
Once Brandt descended from his own magic mountain, he underwent psychoanalysis in Vienna, and later in the decade moved to Paris, taking up photography. One of Brandt’s first subjects, the American poet Ezra Pound, introduced the artist to Man Ray, who briefly took the young German under his wing.
Around this time, Brassai’s book Paris de Nuit (1931) revolutionized urban street photography. That inspiration was a double-edged sword for Brandt. To this day, Brassai’s influence almost overshadows Brandt’s contributions to the history of photography. And recent critics have further diluted his originality with facile comparisons between Brandt’s work and film noir, especially the late films of Alfred Hitchcock.
Brandt’s distinctiveness comes from his intimate detachment, or impassioned disinterest. It helped that, early on, he had uncanny access to the private spaces of English life. But even in the domestic realm, he sought the immobile and dreamlike within the bustle of waking life.
To this end, he photographs coal miners, their faces concealed under layers of black soot, both at work and at home; he captures sun-drenched garden parties as guests wander in and out of the frame like ghosts; and depicts working-class children staging back-alley fistfights or cavorting like can-can girls.
Perhaps Brandt’s tendency toward pictorial perversities took a while to catch on with the public. At first, his adopted country was unimpressed. His first book of photographs, The English at Home (1936), flopped. However, his next one, London at Night (1939), modeled deliberately on Brassai’s hugely successful Paris project, was far more impactful.
That book, along with the onset of World War II, boosted, and arguably made, his career. In 1940, he was commissioned by the Ministry of Information to photograph London life during the war years. Recording this nightmare period in British history suited Brandt. After all, he was already finding unreality inside the real.
His photographs taken during the blitzkrieg are all art and no pathos. They feature huddled and sleeping bodies crowded into basements, under railway arches, or in subway stations. In Brandt’s cold eye, humanity’s escape from itself seems predestined by how easily these civic structures, which he lavishes with as much refined attention as the people they shelter, mutate into makeshift sanctuaries. Whether photographing people in a rooming house, drinking around a pub, or making love in city parks, Brandt’s portraiture frames the landscape as slightly alien to its occupants. The photographs strike notes of dislocation or claustrophobia about which his human subjects look immune, as if they have already internalized incongruity to the extent that it is as normal as breathing.
These latter notes are especially pronounced in Vintage Works. His image of the iconic Battersea Power Station captures that structure shrouded in mist and illuminated by streetlights. It is simultaneously wraithlike and titanic, an industrial era answer to the mythic ambition of the Egyptian pyramids.
That mythic tenor might explain why his photographs evoke vacancy or desolation. People seem literally and figuratively lost to the city, and in turn the city comes off as an exhausting maze. In the exhibition, the cityscape “A Snicket in Halifax” (1936) represents this dystopian theme in Brandt’s body of work. The rain-slicked, cobblestone snicket, or alley, presumably attached to a warehouse, runs upward on a diagonal from left to right. The composition is framed from below, so that the gleaming alley’s ever-narrowing incline seems to suddenly terminate in midair.
Urban architecture composes itself into striking hieroglyphics. “Bombed Regency Staircase, Upper Brook Street, Mayfair” (1942) features the cross section of an ornate, multi-floored stairwell revealed when a bomb blast cleaved the building. The cool composition is characteristically Brandt: the latticed rails and the shadows cast on the sooty walls by exposed the stairwell harmonize into a fantastic spiral alive with pulsing rhythms of light and dark. Death may vanquished life, but what an imprint it makes in the process. It seems almost wrong to enjoy the scene, but that is part of the pleasure of looking at Brandt.
After the war, the artist was commissioned to do cultural portraiture, especially images of the country’s burgeoning arts scene. One representative portrait from this period is a close-up of sculptor Alberto Giacometti’s left eye, itself part of an extended series in which Brandt translated a single eye of an artist into elephantine, and elephant-like, images — a roster that includes the likes of Henry Moore, Jean Arp, Max Ernst, and Louise Nevelson.
In each such image, the artist’s single eye, animated by neural impulses, conveys a weird, fluid vitality moored within dry, weathered skin. No matter how dynamic one’s vision might be, Brandt suggests, it will be subsumed by the decrepitude of the flesh.
Perhaps fearing mortality himself, Brandt turned to nudes, celebrating the timeless beauty of youth. Somehow these anonymous portraits, products of a fertile midlife crisis, avoid being merely exploitative. Maybe it is the way the framing makes them appear both immediate and allegorical. Even in their vulnerable nakedness, his nudes dominate the space they inhabit. Frequently, they are composed to look like self-portraits by the models themselves. At Vintage Works, “Nude, Campden Hill, London” (1957) encapsulates this effect: we see the model’s crossed legs from her point of view as she sits on the studio floor. Across the room, a hard-edge abstract painting propped against a wall looks contrived and inert compared to the sinuous geometry of her living body.
Vintage Works argues in favor of Brandt the poet over Brandt the photojournalist. That is not a difficult case to make. He was a covert Surrealist disguised as a cultural reporter. But maybe that is a distinction without a difference. National identity is, in any case, largely a dreamworld – a product of the collective imagination as a defense against the confusion wrought by change. How else to explain such recent British psychosocial paroxysms as Brexit, that wish-fulfillment fantasy dressed up as a pragmatic choice about trade?
By the time of his passing, Brandt was recognized as a premier British documentarian of a mad century. But he attained his stature through a reverse logic, in which the poeticized lens reveals hard facts, while everyday realties show themselves to be chimeras.
Bill Brandt: Vintage Works, curated by Michael Hoppen, continues at Michael Hoppen Gallery (3 Jubilee Place, London) through January 19.