A closer look at the life and work of the pioneering Anglo-German photographer
Bill Brandt was born in Hamburg, Germany in 1904 to an English father and a German mother. During the the First World War, Brandt’s dual heritage made him a social outcast and the victim of bullying.
He later disowned his German lineage, claiming to have been born in south London. His early work reflects this sense of isolation.
In the 1920s Brandt contracted tuberculosis and was sent to recover at a sanatorium in Davos, Switzerland. It was while confined to the hospital that he first took up photography. After being sent to Vienna for lung analysis in 1927 he met Dr Eugenie Schwarzwald (1872-1940), the Austrian writer and pioneer of female education, who found him a position working in a local portrait studio.
Dr Schwarzwald also introduced Brandt to the American poet Ezra Pound (1885-1972), who in turn introduced him to Man Ray (1890-1976), the American painter, photographer and pioneer of Surrealism and Dada. These encounters provided Brandt with his first connections to the art world. Inspired by Man Ray, Brandt criss-crossed Europe photographing cities by night.
In 1931, with his first wife Eva Horos, Brandt settled in London. There he published his first photobook, The English at Home (1936), which documented the wildly disparate social milieus of his adoptive city.
His early work was praised by the critic Raymond Mortimer (1895-1980) for its acute observation and freshness. American photographer Walker Evans (1903-1975) said of Brandt’s images of parlour maids, including Parlourmaid Preparing a Bath Before Dinner, above, ‘This is Bill Brandt striking home in every sense’.
Brandt’s reputation for photographing people affected by poverty and distress made him an ideal candidate to document the effects of the Blitz on London.
The British Ministry of Information commissioned him to photograph London’s bomb shelters, and sent the images to Washington, D.C. as part of a campaign to enlist American support in the war effort. Brandt described the images as capturing ‘the long alley of intermingled bodies, with the hot, smelly air and continual murmur of snores’.
Inspired by Edward Weston’s sparse imagery of the American landscape, Brandt began shooting figureless outdoor scenes — famously waiting years for a chance to document Stonehenge under the snow, above.
He also photographed famous sitters in their homes, including the Welsh poet Dylan Thomas (1914-1953), and the English novelist E.M. Forster (1879-1970).
Brandt’s night-time scenes were made possible with the invention of the Vacublitz flashbulb and portable tungsten lamps — he famously claimed to carry enough lamp cable to run the length of Salisbury Cathedral. He also utilised new cinematography techniques, reworking negatives of images shot during the day so that they appeared to have been taken at night.
He used a Rolleiflex camera for portrait images, and a Hasselblad camera with a super-wide angle lens for his landscape works, such as the above image of Giant’s Causeway in Ireland. In this he acknowledged a debt to the deep-focus style of Orson Welles’s film Citizen Kane (1941).
He often used the same camera — a 1931 Kodak — employed by the police to document crime scenes, explaining that it allowed him to see ‘like a mouse, a fish or a fly’.
‘Employing a range of techniques and surprisingly varied subject matter, Brandt’s images evoke mysterious and often dream-like realms. This distinct quality, which he himself once described as ‘‘familiar and yet strange,” probably best defines Brandt’s legacy,’ says Darius Himes, Christie’s International Head of Photography in New York.
Later in life Brandt increasingly experimented with photographing nudes. His sitters often adopted contorted poses in images inspired by the work of British sculptor Henry Moore (1898-1986). In 1961 he published the photobook Perspective of Nudes, which featured naked models in domestic interiors and on French and English beaches.
His work was first displayed at MoMA in New York in 1941 (when the photography department was less than a year old) as part of the group show Britain at War — although initially his images were unattributed. Over the next 20 years his work, from war reportage to nudes, featured in at least 12 more MoMA exhibitions.
His first solo show at MoMA, Bill Brandt, was held in 1969, for which 42 of the works in Christie’s January 2018 sale were printed. His work featured in a further 18 exhibitions at MoMA from 1969, including two more solo shows: Bill Brandt 1905-1983 (1983-84), which marked the photographer's death, and Bill Brandt: Shadow and Light (2013), curated by Sarah Hermanson Meister.
‘A lot of [Brandt’s] work is relevant to a new generation of people, both because of evaluations of where photography’s modernist traditions lie, and also because issues of class, issues of the feminine gaze or the masculine gaze on a feminine figure mean they feel very fresh and relevant even today,’ Meister said in a 2013 interview.
In his later years, in addition to teaching at London’s Royal College of Art and undertaking commissions, Brandt remained involved in the organisation of exhibitions on both sides of the Atlantic. In 1983, in the course of assisting with the curation of Bill Brandt’s Literary Britain at the Victoria & Albert Museum, the photographer died after a short illness. The show became a memorial to the artist, who would be the subject of two further retrospectives at the museum in 2004. Together, these cemented his place as one of the most important photographers of the 20th century.