In the 1930s, Bill Brandt put down roots in England. He had always wanted to be English, and perhaps this is what rendered him
an ideal conduit for seeing British society in the Modern era.
Born in Germany of a German mother and British father, Brandt functioned
as both insider and outsider, having two vantage points from which to work.
Bill Brandt was the product of a German bourgeois upbringing, who suffered the trauma of attending a Prussian boarding school in his frail youth.
He happily abandoned Germany well before the rise of Adolph Hitler and the influences of the preceding Weimar Republic. More to his
liking were both English drawing rooms and street life in London.
His photographs give us insight into our own psyches but they tell us little about Bill Brandt himself. Brandt, even when covering class distinctions among the English and in photographing World War II, remained an aesthete. One can only speculate that he may have felt himself 'other' among British society - not fully dyed-in-the-wool.
He was a relatively timid child with a domineering father, and he spent some of his younger years in a sanatorium recovering from tuberculosis.
If he erred on the side of reclusiveness or timidity about himself, one could certainly understand the roots of it. He loved drawing
and painting and literature - largely interior pursuits - but he also developed a talent for photography before moving to Paris where
Ezra Pound, the American poet, became Bill Brandt's first important portrait commission. Pound was favorably impressed with Brandt's w
ork of 1928 and gave him a letter of introduction for employment in Modern artist Man Ray's studio. Brandt learned from Ray as he
assisted him in his painting studio, where he was introduced to Surrealism.
For what may have been the first time in his life, Brandt was in the right place at the right time. But after soaking up the heady art scene of Paris, Brandt moved to London in 1931 and began making work. His first subjects were the upstairs and downstairs strata of society. The photographs he made during these early
days would complete his first book, The English Home.
By the late 1930s, he was creating photographs of the Great Depression era, images which were an ocean away from those of his American cohorts, literally and figuratively. Although his work documents this period of time, detachment from his subject and aesthetic considerations became his overriding concern. In 1937, however, he set out with the objective of photographing out-of-work coal miners and the children who picked coal from the railroad tracks in an attempt to generate heat from what amounted to crumbs. This was his last public works project, profound as it is in conveying abject poverty.
Then began an era of experimenting with light and shadow, which would reach its culmination during the dark nights and days of World War II and be incorporated into the portraits he subsequently made. Brandt's superb photographs which document the War are velvety dark images of England's bomb shelters and inky nights, testament to a specific time and place, despite their intrinsic beauty.
By this time, Brandt controlled all aspects of his photography, actually claiming that photographs were really made in the dark room. By 1945, however, he chose to use a wooden camera with an aperture through which he could barely see. He had admired the film work in Orson Welle's Citizen Cane, so he chose to experiment with wide angle photography. The resultant shot emerged (as suggested by the early Surrealists) an act of fate or coincidence. He allowed the 70-year-old police camera to do this leg of the work, while he regained control of the print in the darkroom.
His nudes from 1945 and after were Surrealist in style, exaggerating body parts until they became in the eye of the viewer amorphous shapes in the extreme. Body parts fooled the eye into seeing them as entangled and sometimes not readily identifiable or were blended with the landscape to the point at which they were almost inseparable or imperceptible.
He bent Surrealism to his own standards, long after the first wave of Surrealism had run its course. While others documented the Great Depression and World War II in documentary style, affective in its nature, Bill Brandt developed his own language to portray his subject in a new and personal aesthetic light with exquisite timing and creativity. Perhaps this is why
iconoclast Bill Brandt is considered by many to be the premier photographer of the 20th century.
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