Concealment in Bill Brandt’s photographic work

The new Fundación MAPFRE KBr Photography Center, Barcelona, opens its doors with the first retrospective in Spain on Bill Brandt (Hamburg, 1904 – London, 1983). Perhaps less well known than some of his contemporaries such as Henri Cartier- Bresson or Walker Evans, to name but a few, this artist is now considered one of the most influential British photographers of the 20th century.

The artist’s pictures, which explore society, the landscape and English literature, are indispensable for understanding the history of photography and, even, British life in the mid-20th century. Bill Brandt is thus one of those visionaries who base the creative potential of this medium on contemplating the world around them. There are two aspects that remain central themes throughout his oeuvre. Firstly, the elimination of any reference to his German roots after settling in London in 1934; concealment prompted by the growing animosity to anything German, following the rise of Nazism. Secondly, the somber atmosphere of ‘the sinister’, a term employed by Sigmund Freud in 1919, with which Brandt must have been more than familiar, following psychoanalysis sessions he attended as a youth in Vienna.

Based on these notions, this exhibition of 186 photographs, all developed by Bill Brandt himself, presents an overview of the principal spheres of his visual production, covering every genre of the photographic discipline: social reporting, portraiture, nudes and landscapes. Likewise, it highlights the relationship between the British photographer’s work and the theories of Surrealism, a movement with which he came into contact during his time in Paris in the 1930s.

1. Earliest photographs

After initiating his foray into photography in Vienna, where he took the famous portrait of the poet Ezra Pound in 1928, Bill Brandt left for Paris and spent a short period of time there as an apprentice in Man Ray’s studio. This prompted him to mingle with the Surrealists in the French capital, an influence that would permeate his oeuvre from then on. This influence, along with that of his much-admired Eugène Atget, the photographer who documented ‘the old Paris’, subject of a Fundación MAPFRE exhibition in 2011, resulted in images where the disturbing mood was already present: street scenes and the Parisian nightlife are some of the most common motifs of the artist’s pictures during this period.

Together with his partner and future wife Eva Boros he also made numerous trips to the Hungarian steppe, his native Hamburg, and Spain, where he visited Madrid and Barcelona, before moving to London in 1934. It was in this city that Brandt shed his German roots, by inventing a British birth, and created an artistic body of work in which the United Kingdom is at the very core of his identity. He then started depicting a country which, at that time, revealed tremendous social inequalities.

Parlourmaid and Under-parlourmaid ready to serve dinner, 1936 Gelatin silver print Private collection, Courtesy Bill Brandt Archive and Edwynn Houk Gallery

2. Upstairs, Downstairs

In February 1936, two years after his arrival in London, Bill Brandt published his first book, The English at Home.

Despite appearing natural, spontaneous shots, the scenes reflected in this work had been prepared beforehand. For this first publication, Brandt used an elongated, album-like format and adopted one of the most common design formulas employed by central-European illustrated publications: the juxtaposition of opposites, in pursuit of a significant contrast between each pair of photographs. The artist sought this contrast between two opposing social classes, developing two parallel narratives, but without mixing them. Thus, we find scenes of upper-class families out for a stroll or dining, alternated with the very same activities featuring working-class families.

With the start of the Second World War, Brandt began working for the Ministry of Information and produced two of his most famous series: the first comprised photographs of hundreds of Londoners sleeping in Underground stations converted into improvised bomb shelters; the second, with views of the above-ground city, a ghostly London, solely illuminated by the moonlight as a protective measure against the enemy bombers. The United Kingdom had become a country facing the enemy alone. The class differences that Brandt had portrayed were no longer present, giving way to a different kind of scenes denouncing the ravages of war wrought on the civilian population.

3. Portraits

He had done several portraits at the start of his career, but from the nineteen forties onward — a period when he worked for such magazines as Picture Post, Liliput and Harper’s Bazaar — Bill Brandt addressed this genre in a professional manner. Some of them represented a break with tradition, such as those that appeared in the aforementioned Lilliput in 1941, illustrating the article ‘Young Poets of Democracy’, which included some of the most representative faces of the Auden Generation writers and poets. Later, he began to distort space, as can be seen in the portrait of Francis Bacon in Primrose, London (1963), and created a new series of clearly Surrealist-inspired portraits of the eyes of artists: among others, those of Henry Moore, Georges Braque and Antoni Tàpies, examples of the visions that transformed the way of seeing and representing the world.

Francis Bacon on Primrose Hill, London [Francis Bacon en Primrose Hill, Londres], 1963 Gelatin silver print Private collection, Courtesy Bill Brandt Archive and Edwynn Houk Gallery
© Bill Brandt / Bill Brandt Archive Ltd.

4. Described landscapes

Following extensive portraiture work – which he never abandoned – Bill Brandt introduced the landscape into his repertoire. He thus completed the classic lineup of what are conventionally considered the traditional artistic genres.

For the artist, the landscape concept is firmly rooted in both painting and the photographic tradition, as well as in literature. Most of his photographs in this genre are compiled in Literary Britain, 1951, a publication consisting of more than one hundred images inspired by classic English authors such as Jane Austen, Charles Dickens or Anthony Trollope, accompanied by excerpts from literary texts by these same writers. In these pictures, the photographer sought to introduce an atmosphere that would evoke an emotional response from the viewer in what was clearly a post-Romantic intention. The feeling therefore comes across that Brandt did not merely wish to depict a place, but rather capture its spirit in a single image.

5. Nudes

When Bill Brandt returned to the nude theme in 1944, following a rather unsatisfactory incursion before the war, he seemed to feel the need to return to somewhat more poetic images. It is worth recalling that this genre is one of the classic painting themes and, as such, marks the evolution of Brandt from documentary photographer to being widely considered an ‘artist’. In this evolution, he made use of an old plate camera with a lens that produced a sense of great spatiality and depth, so as to transform the everyday space of a room into a dreamlike environment.

In the 1950s he visited English Channel beaches to take a series of portraits of the painter Georges Braque. The vision of these rocky beaches caused him to change tack and start photographing stones and parts of the female body as though they were those very stones. He blended flesh and rock, heat and cold, hardness and softness in the same formal discourse. The distortions often lead to the body fragments losing all points of reference and, nevertheless, generate more poetic or more profound sensations. These body ‘fragments’ compared or in conjunction with the forms of nature seem to embody primal shapes through which ‘the unified whole of the world’ can be perceived, as in the case of the Urformen (basic forms) put forward by the Gestalt School and their theory of perception.

Nu, Londres [Desnudo, Londres], 1952 Gelatin silver print Private collection, Courtesy Bill Brandt Archive and Edwynn Houk Gallery

6. Extolling imperfection

In his introduction to Camera in London, the book on the British capital published in 1948, Bill Brandt stated: “I consider it essential that the photographer should do his own printing and enlarging. The final effect of the finished print depends so much on these operations. And only the photographer himself knows the effect he wants.” For the artist, the work in the laboratory was crucial and, early on in his career, he learned a whole range of skills for his craft: from contact printing to enlargement, and the use of brushes, scrapers or other tools. At times such manual retouching lent his pictures that somewhat crude appearance which could be associated with the Freudian concept of unheimlich: ‘sinister’. In many of them we can appreciate in some detail the black wash brushstrokes on the surface. We have a further example in Top Withens, West Riding, Yorkshire (1945), taken as part of his book Literary Britain. Here we see clear indications that the stormy sky, which affords the landscape a more threatening aspect, was added later on in the laboratory. This points to that aspect of concealment which continued throughout Bill Brandt’s life and work. 

Top Withens, West Riding, Yorkshire, 1945 Gelatin silver print Private collection, Courtesy Bill Brandt Archive and Edwynn Houk Gallery © Bill Brandt / Bill Brandt Archive Ltd.