Bill Brandt created a unique body of work, ranging from stark photojournalism and moody landscapes, to bold portraits and highly abstract nudes. Welding together the two dominant currents of modernist photography, the documentary and the surreal, Brandt developed his own intensely expressive style.
Brandt (British, b. Germany 1904-83) began his career in Paris in 1929 when he trained as Man Ray’s assistant. In 1931 he settled in London to work on his first important project, the production of the classic book The English at Home. In it, Brandt recorded the marked contrasts underlying British society, with its sharp separation between the worlds of the “upstairs” and “downstairs”, of high society and of the working class. This first publication was followed in 1936 by A Night in London, an exploration of the city’s darker aspects inspired by Paris de nuit, the work of Brandt’s good friend Brassaï. Throughout the 1930s and early 1940s, Brandt established his reputation as a photojournalist, working steadily for The Weekly Illustrated, Liliput, and Picture Post. Brandt’s chronicles of industrial towns hit by economic hardship in the north of England, and of London in the time of the Blitz, are classics examples of documentary photography.
In the post-war period, Brandt’s work underwent a dramatic shift in focus. As Brandt himself explained it he “gradually lost his enthusiasm for reportage”, finding that his “main theme of the past few years had disappeared; England was no longer a country of marked social contrast.” Brandt then turned to nudes, portraits and landscapes.
Although not always understood at the time, Brandt’s series of nudes are considered today as his most innovative work. With their dramatic use of the contrasting values of black and white, and with their exploration of optical deformations, the nudes read as daring studies in abstractions, reminiscent of Henry Moore’s sculptures. At the same time, Brandt developed the symbolist potential of photography in a series of landscapes infused with the spirit of Romanticism and directly inspired by the writings of poets and novelists such as Emily Brontë.
Himself an important figure of the British artistic and intellectual scene, Brandt produced striking portraits of celebrated contemporaries, such as Francis Bacon, E.M. Forster, Dylan Thomas and Henry Moore.
In 1969, New York’s Museum of Modern Art honored Brandt with a first retrospective of his work. Several solo shows followed at both museums and galleries in Europe and the United States. In 1981, two years before Brandt’s death, the Royal Photographic Society inaugurated its National Centre of Photography in Bath with a retrospective. In 1999, the International Center of Photography (New York) presented a retrospective of rare vintage prints. This was accompanied by the publication of the comprehensive monograph Brandt: The Photography of Bill Brandt.