Bill Brandt in February 1977. Photo David MontgomeryGetty Images

10 things to know about Bill Brandt

A closer look at the life and work of the pioneering Anglo-German photographer

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  • Brandt's lonely childhood shaped his later artistic vision

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.

Bill Brandt (1904-1983), Deserted Street in Bloomsbury, London, 1942. Imagesheetflush mount 20 x 17¼ in (50.8 x 43.8 cm). Estimate                    $3,000-5,000. This lot is offered in MoMA Bill Brandt, 16-24 January 2018, Online

Bill Brandt (1904-1983), Deserted Street in Bloomsbury, London, 1942. Image/sheet/flush mount: 20 x 17¼ in (50.8 x 43.8 cm). Estimate: $3,000-5,000. This lot is offered in MoMA: Bill Brandt, 16-24 January 2018, Online

He later disowned his German lineage, claiming to have been born in south London. His early work reflects this sense of isolation.

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  • It was illness that motivated him to pick up a camera

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.

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  • Brandt made early — and influential — connections with Ezra Pound and Man Ray

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.

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  • Brandt first became famous for his images of London

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.

Bill Brandt (1904-1983), Parlourmaid Preparing a Bath Before Dinner, c. 1937. Imagesheet 14 x 12 in (35.5 x 30.4 cm). Estimate                    $3,000-5,000. This lot is offered in MoMA Bill Brandt, 16-24 January 2018, Online

Bill Brandt (1904-1983), Parlourmaid Preparing a Bath Before Dinner, c. 1937. Image/sheet: 14 x 12 in (35.5 x 30.4 cm). Estimate: $3,000-5,000. This lot is offered in MoMA: Bill Brandt, 16-24 January 2018, Online

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’.

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  • Brandt’s work became part of the war effort

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.

Bill Brandt (1904-1983), Crowded, Improvised Air-Raid Shelter in a Liverpool Street Tube Tunnel, 1940. Imagesheetflush mount 24¼ x 20⅝ in (61.5 x 52.3 cm). Estimate                    $5,000-7,000. This lot is offered in MoMA Bill Brandt, 16-24 January 2018, Online

Bill Brandt (1904-1983), Crowded, Improvised Air-Raid Shelter in a Liverpool Street Tube Tunnel, 1940. Image/sheet/flush mount: 24¼ x 20⅝ in (61.5 x 52.3 cm). Estimate: $5,000-7,000. This lot is offered in MoMA: Bill Brandt, 16-24 January 2018, Online

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’.

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  • After the war, Brandt’s focus shifted to landscape and portrait photography

Bill Brandt (1904-1983), Stonehenge under Snow, 1947. Sheet 20¼ x 17½ in (51.4 x 44.4 cm). Estimate                    $3,000-5,000. This lot is offered in MoMA Bill Brandt, 16-24 January 2018, Online

Bill Brandt (1904-1983), Stonehenge under Snow, 1947. Sheet: 20¼ x 17½ in (51.4 x 44.4 cm). Estimate: $3,000-5,000. This lot is offered in MoMA: Bill Brandt, 16-24 January 2018, Online

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.

Bill Brandt (1904-1983), E.M. Forster in His Room at Kings College, Cambridge, 1947. Imagesheet 14 x 12 in (35.5 x 30.4 cm). Estimate                    $5,000-7,000. This lot is offered in MoMA Bill Brandt, 16-24 January 2018, Online

Bill Brandt (1904-1983), E.M. Forster in His Room at King's College, Cambridge, 1947. Image/sheet: 14 x 12 in (35.5 x 30.4 cm). Estimate: $5,000-7,000. This lot is offered in MoMA: Bill Brandt, 16-24 January 2018, Online

Bill Brandt (1904–1983), Dylan Thomas and his wife, Caitlin, in their room, Manresa Road, Chelsea, 1944. Imagesheet 17⅛ x 14½ in (43.4 x 36.8 cm). Estimate                    $3,000-5,000. This lot is offered in MoMA Bill Brandt, 16-24 January 2018, Online

Bill Brandt (1904–1983), Dylan Thomas and his wife, Caitlin, in their room, Manresa Road, Chelsea, 1944. Image/sheet: 17⅛ x 14½ in (43.4 x 36.8 cm). Estimate: $3,000-5,000. This lot is offered in MoMA: Bill Brandt, 16-24 January 2018, Online

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).

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  • He pioneered the use of new technologies

Bill Brandt (1904-1983), Henry Moore, 1960. Imagesheetflush mount 24¼ x 20⅝ in (61.5 x 52.3 cm). Estimate                    $5,000-7,000. This lot is offered in MoMA Bill Brandt, 16-24 January 2018, Online

Bill Brandt (1904-1983), Henry Moore, 1960. Image/sheet/flush mount: 24¼ x 20⅝ in (61.5 x 52.3 cm). Estimate: $5,000-7,000. This lot is offered in MoMA: Bill Brandt, 16-24 January 2018, Online

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.

Bill Brandt (1904-1983), Giants Causeway, Northern Ireland, 1946. Sheet 14¼ x 12¼ in (36.1 x 31.1 cm). Estimate                    $2,000-3,000. This lot is offered in MoMA Bill Brandt, 16-24 January 2018, Online

Bill Brandt (1904-1983), Giant's Causeway, Northern Ireland, 1946. Sheet: 14¼ x 12¼ in (36.1 x 31.1 cm). Estimate: $2,000-3,000. This lot is offered in MoMA: Bill Brandt, 16-24 January 2018, Online

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.

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  • He experimented with nudes

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.

Bill Brandt (1904-1983), Vastérival, Normandy, 1957. Imagesheetflush mount 24⅛ x 20⅝ in (61.2 x 52.3 cm). Estimate                    $8,000-12,000. This lot is offered in MoMA Bill Brandt, 16-24 January 2018, Online

Bill Brandt (1904-1983), Vastérival, Normandy, 1957. Image/sheet/flush mount: 24⅛ x 20⅝ in (61.2 x 52.3 cm). Estimate: $8,000-12,000. This lot is offered in MoMA: Bill Brandt, 16-24 January 2018, Online

Bill Brandt (1904–1983), St. Johns Wood, London, 1957. Imagesheetflush mount 24¼ x 20½ in (61.4 x 52 cm). Estimate                    $10,000-15,000. This lot is offered in MoMA Bill Brandt, 16-24 January 2018, Online

Bill Brandt (1904–1983), St. John's Wood, London, 1957. Image/sheet/flush mount: 24¼ x 20½ in (61.4 x 52 cm). Estimate: $10,000-15,000. This lot is offered in MoMA: Bill Brandt, 16-24 January 2018, Online

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  • Brandt was widely exhibited throughout his lifetime

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.

Bill Brandt (1904-1983), Bomarzo, Italy, 1965. Imagesheet 14 x 12 in (35.5 x 30.4 cm). Estimate                    $2,000-3,000. This lot is offered in MoMA Bill Brandt, 16-24 January 2018, Online

Bill Brandt (1904-1983), Bomarzo, Italy, 1965. Image/sheet: 14 x 12 in (35.5 x 30.4 cm). Estimate: $2,000-3,000. This lot is offered in MoMA: Bill Brandt, 16-24 January 2018, Online

‘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.

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  • He worked tirelessly until the end

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.