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HomeContents > People > Photographers > Bill Brandt

Names:
Born: Hermann Wilhelm Brandt 
Dates:  1904, 2 May - 1983, 20 December
Born:  Germany, Hamburg
Died:  UK, London
Active:  France / England
 
  
Bill Brandt became an acute observer of British society but was also interested in distorting the human form through the use of mirrors and extreme depth of field to create memorable images. His nudes on pebble beaches and his details of carefully selected parts of the human body are always intriguing.

Preparing biographies

Approved biography for Bill Brandt
Courtesy of the Victoria & Albert Museum (London, UK)

 
  
Apprenticeship
'For any young photographer at that time, Paris was the centre of the world. Those were the exciting early days when the French poets and surrealists recognised the possibilities of photography.'
Bill Brandt
Bill Brandt was born in Hamburg on 2 May 1904 to an English father and a German mother. He made the watercolour painting of the family house in 1918 when he was 14. Brandt was bullied at school after the First World War. This experience and the rise of Nazism caused him to disown his German background. In later life he said that he was born in south London.
 
Brandt probably took up photography as an amateur enthusiast when he was a patient undergoing treatment for tuberculosis in a sanatorium in Davos, Switzerland in the 1920s.
 
In 1927 he travelled to Vienna, where he was taken up by Dr Eugenie Schwarzwald. She found him a position in a portrait studio. It is likely that she also introduced him to the American poet Ezra Pound. Pound apparently gave Brandt an immensely valuable introduction to Man Ray.
 
Brandt assisted Man Ray in Paris for several months in 1930. Here he witnessed the heyday of Surrealist film and grasped the new poetic possibilities of photography.
 
Some early photographs are modelled on works by the French photographer Eugène Atget (1857-1927). Atget made a living selling his photographs, mainly of old Paris, to painters, designers and libraries.
 
In the 1920s he was taken up by Man Ray and other Surrealists as a major photographer in his own right. In the photograph Flea Market Brandt reworks a favourite Atget subject.
 
Other early Brandt photographs experiment with angular modernist styles and night photography.
 
He travelled in continental Europe with Eva Boros, whom he had met in the Vienna portrait studio. They married in Barcelona in 1932.
 
Night photography became one of Brandt's specialities and this may be his earliest experiment in the genre. Here he posed his first wife Eva Boros as a nightwalker in the red light district of Hamburg. Family and friends were to play many roles in his social documentary scenes.
 
The English at Home (1936)
'The extreme social contrast, during those years before the war, was, visually, very inspiring for me. I started by photographing in London, the West End, the suburbs, the slums.'
Bill Brandt
Brandt visited England during the late 1920s. In 1934 he and his wife settled in Belsize Park, north London. Brandt adopted Britain as his home and it became the subject of his greatest photographs.
 
Although he photographed on occasion for the News Chronicle and Weekly Illustrated, Brandt was not in demand as a photojournalist until the foundation of Lilliput (1937) and Picture Post (1938) by the great picture-editor Stefan Lorant.
 
The majority of Brandt's earliest English photographs were first published in Brandt’s The English at Home (1936).
 
The young photographer used his family contacts - for example, his banker uncles - to gain access to a variety of subjects. The book contained a number of pointed social contrasts, such as the high life presented on the front cover and a poor family shown on the back cover.
 
Raymond Mortimer's introduction to the book praised Brandt for the freshness of his observation and the acuteness with which he saw and photographed such contrasts.
 
The photograph Parlourmaid and Under-parlourmaid Ready to Serve Dinner was taken in the house of one of Brandt’s banker uncles. Brandt's photo-essay The Perfect Parlourmaid appeared in Picture Post in1938.
 
The photograph was first published, opposite a Matisse painting of a dinner table, in Verve magazine in 1938.
 
'This is Bill Brandt striking home in every sense', remarked Walker Evans.
 
A variation of this scene, in which the parlourmaid (whose name was Pratt), wears a light coloured tunic, was published in Picture Post in 1938. The photograph shows that she was testing the temperature with a thermometer.
 
A Night in London (1938)
'I photographed pubs, common lodging houses at night, theatres, Turkish baths, prisons and people in their bedrooms. London has changed so much that some of these pictures now have a period charm almost of another century.'
Bill Brandt
Brandt's second book, A Night in London, was published in London and Paris in 1938. It was based on Paris de Nuit (1936) by Brassaï, whom Brandt greatly admired.
 
The book tells the story of a London night, moving between different social classes and making use – as with The English at Home – of Brandt's family and friends.
 
Night photography was a new genre of the period, opened up by the newly developed flashbulb (the 'Vacublitz' was manufactured in Britain from 1930). Brandt generally preferred to use portable tungsten lamps called photo-floods. He claimed to have enough cable to run the length of Salisbury Cathedral.
 
James Bone introduced Brandt's book and described the new, electric city: 'Floodlit attics and towers, oiled roadways shining like enamel under the street lights and headlights, the bright lacquer and shining metals of motorcars, illuminated signs…'
 
Brandt often used the darkroom to alter his photographs in decisive way. For example, in the photograph Policeman in a Dockland Alley he used the 'day for night' technique employed by cinematographers to transform images photographed in daylight into night scenes.
 
North
'He was pushing his bicycle along a footpath through a desolate wasteland between Hebburn and Jarrow. Loaded on the crossbar was a sack of small coal, all that he had found after a day’s search on the slag -heaps.'
Bill Brandt
Spurred by the Jarrow Crusade of 1936 and reading George Orwell's essays and J.B. Priestley's book An English Journey (1934), Brandt visited the industrial north of England for the first time in 1937.
 
Priestley described the condition of the north east, where the effects of the Depression and the closure of ship-building yards had resulted in 80% unemployment: 'The whole town looked as if it had entered a perpetual penniless bleak Sabbath. The men wore the drawn masks of prisoners of war'. Brandt carefully documented coal-searching - the retrieval of small lumps of coal from spoil heaps - and the domestic life of miners.
 
Coal-searcher Going Home to Jarrow eloquently captured the Depression. It was published in Picture Post ten years later to symbolise a very different time - the onset of the post-war 'Age of Austerity.'
 
Blackout and Blitz
'In 1939, at the beginning of the war, I was back in London photographing the blackout. The darkened town, lit only by moonlight, looked more beautiful than before or since.'
Bill Brandt
Bill Brandt met Tom Hopkinson, then assistant editor of Weekly Illustrated, in 1936. Hopkinson, later knighted for services to journalism, became Brandt's editor at Lilliput and Picture Post.
 
He described Brandt in a profile published in Lilliput in 1942 as having 'a voice as loud as a moth and the gentlest manner to be found outside a nunnery'. Brandt would propose picture-stories for both magazines and often sequence his photo-essays, sometimes also contributing text.
 
The blackout photographs, probably Brandt's own idea, were made during the 'phoney war' period, after war had been declared but before serious hostilities between Britain and Germany had begun. A second set was made in 1942.
 
Elizabeth Bowen, one of Brandt’s favourite writers, wrote in her story 'Mysterious Kôr': 'Full moon drenched the city and searched it; there was not a niche left to stand in. The effect was remorseless: London looked like the moon's capital – shallow, cratered, extinct…And the moon did more: it exonerated and beautified'.
 
After the London Blitz began, Brandt was commissioned to record bomb shelters by the Ministry of Information. His photographs were sent to Washington as part of the British government's attempt to bring the US into the war on the allied side.
 
Cyril Connolly published Brandt's shelter photographs in Horizon in February 1942. In 1966 Connolly wrote that '"Elephant and Castle 3.45 a.m." eternalises for me the dreamlike monotony of wartime London.' Brandt himself recalled 'the long alley of intermingled bodies, with the hot, smelly air and continual murmur of snores'.
 
Literary Britain
'When I have found a landscape which I want to photograph, I wait for the right season, the right weather, and the right time of day or night, to get the picture which I know to be there.'
Bill Brandt
Suspended social life, long railway journeys and the need to reaffirm ideas of national identity all encouraged a return to the literary classics.
 
Brandt shared in this. He read and admired the writings of the Brontë sisters, Thomas Hardy, George Crabbe and John Clare, some of whose poems he knew by heart.
 
From 1945 onwards Brandt contributed a series of landscape photographs, accompanied by texts selected from British writers, to Lilliput.
 
Other landscapes appeared in Picture Post and the American magazine Harper's Bazaar.
 
Although he never met Brandt, the novelist Lawrence Durrell attempted to persuade the leading poetry publishers, Faber & Faber, to publish Brandt’s landscapes. In 1950 Cassell commissioned Brandt to complete the series, which was published the following year with an introduction by John Hayward.
 
Brandt greatly admired Edward Weston: the deep shadows and simplified, rhythmic forms of Brandt’s landscapes may owe something to the Californian master.
 
Bill Brandt waited years for the opportunity to photograph Stonehenge under snow. His image provided the cover for the issue of Picture Post for 19 April 1947. This dealt with Britain in crisis, as post-war euphoria gave way to the Age of Austerity. Portraits
'I always take portraits in my sitter’s own surroundings. I concentrate very much on the picture as a whole and leave the sitter rather to himself. I hardly talk and barely look at him.'
Bill Brandt
Although Brandt's career began, decisively, with his close-up portrait of Ezra Pound in 1928, portraiture flowered in his career only in the 1940s.
 
He used a Rolleiflex (introduced in 1928): its ground glass provided a clear view of the subject and the 2 ¼ x 2 ¼ inch negative gave Brandt the latitude he liked for darkroom work, especially cropping.
 
The portraits were commissioned by Lilliput, Picture Post and Harper’s Bazaar. His portrait of Dylan Thomas, for example, appeared in a feature on Young Poets of Democracy in Lilliput in December 1941. A Gallery of Literary Artists appeared in the same magazine in November 1949, including the Sitwells, Robert Graves, Norman Douglas, E.M. Forster and Graham Greene. Lilliput also published portraits of visual artists and composers.
 
In the 1960s Brandt used a Hasselblad with a superwide-angle lens, which gave his portraits a dynamic edge appropriate to the new decade.
 
Perspective of Nudes
'Instead of photographing what I saw, I photographed what the camera was seeing. I interfered very little, and the lens produced anatomical images and shapes which my eyes had never observed.'
Bill Brandt
Bill Brandt experimented with photography of the nude in the 1930s and early 1940s. He made a decisive breakthrough in 1944 when he acquired a mahogany and brass camera with a wide-angle lens.
 
He enthusiastically acknowledged a debt to the wide-angle, deep-focus cinematography of Orson Welles' Citizen Kane (1941).
 
The camera, a 1931 Kodak used by the police for crime scene records, allowed him to see, he said, 'like a mouse, a fish or a fly'.
 
The nudes reveal Brandt's intimate knowledge of the École de Paris - particularly Man Ray, Picasso, Matisse and Arp - together with his admiration for Henry Moore.
 
He published Perspective of Nudes in 1961. It featured nudes in domestic interiors and studios, and on the beaches of East Sussex and northern and southern France. He used a Superwide Hasselblad for the beach photographs. In 1977-8 Brandt added further nudes, published in Nudes, 1945-80.
 
Brandt used professional models but also sometimes family and friends. His second wife, the journalist Marjorie Beckett, modelled for the Campden Hill photograph.
 
Brandt's last years were spent reissuing his work in a series of books published by Gordon Fraser. He taught Royal College of Art photography students and continued to accept commissions for portraits. He selected an exhibition for the Victoria and Albert Museum titled The Land: 20th Century Landscape Photographs (1975) and was working on another show, Bill Brandt’s Literary Britain, when he died after a short illness in 1983. The exhibition became a memorial tribute to Brandt the following year.
 
In 2004 the V&A was showing Bill Brandt: A Centenary Retrospective in the Exhibition Galleries and Other Sides of Bill Brandt in the Photography Gallery (both 24 March - 25 July 2004). 
  
This biography is courtesy and copyright of the Victoria & Albert Museum and is included here with permission. 
  
Date last updated: 11 Nov 2011. 
  
SHARED BIOGRAPHICAL INFORMATION PROJECT 
  
We welcome institutions and scholars willing to test the sharing of biographies for the benefit of the photo-history community. The biography above is a part of this trial.
 
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Biography provided by Focal Press 
  
Influenced by the surrealists and became Man Ray’s assistant (1929). Freelanced for Lilliput and Harper’s Bazaar. During the Depression Brandt re-created scenarios he had witnessed of upper- and working-class people that showed the divisions of English social class. These docudramas, published in The English at Home (1936), A Night in London (1938), and Camera in London (1948), were expressionistic interpretations rather than reportage. In the 1950s Brandt used a pinhole camera to exaggerate perspective to create formal, high-contrast, often grainy, black and white prints of statuesque female nudes, reminiscent of El Greco, and eerily atmospheric landscapes possessing an ambiance of a troubled dream to poetically explore the anxiety of the new atomic era. 
  
(Author: Robert Hirsch - Independent scholar and writer) 
  
Michael Peres (Editor-in-Chief), 2007, Focal Encyclopedia of Photography, 4th edition, (Focal Press) [ISBN-10: 0240807405, ISBN-13: 978-0240807409] 
(Used with permission) 
  

Further research

 
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Bill Jay
Bill Brandt 
[Photographers] 
n.d.
 
  
Family history 
  
If you are related to this photographer and interested in tracking down your extended family we can place a note here for you to help. It is free and you would be amazed who gets in touch. 
  
alan@luminous-lint.com
 
  
 
  

Visual indexes

 
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Supplemental information

 

Bill Brandt
English, 1904-1983

Bill Brandt was born in Hamburg in 1904. While studying architecture in Germany and Switzerland he began working in portrait studios where he fell in love with photography. He later moved to Paris and studied under Man Ray between 1929-1930. While Brandt admired photographers such as Edward Weston, Cartier-Bresson and Eugene Atget, he became greatly influenced by surrealism. In 1931 he returned to England where he became a freelance photographer and began documenting the English way of life. His images were featured in publications including Harper's Bazaar, News Chronicle and Picture Post. With the onset of World War II, Brandt became a staff photographer for the British Home Office where he reported on the hardships of the English people during the German bombing raids. By the end of the war, Brandt had become disillusioned with documentary photography and yearned to create the type of images he made in his earlier years in Paris. He began to photograph nudes, landscapes and portraits. Brandt is best known for his high contrast images with their stark black-and-white tones, and for his use of a wide-angle lens which distorted the subject matter and gave the image a surreal quality. His work can be found in most museums that collect photographs.
 
[Contributed by Lee Gallery]
 
The latest biography on Bill Brandt is by Paul Delany, "Bill Brandt, a Life" Stanford University Press (CA), 2004. 334 pages. 
  
 

Internet biographies

Terms and Conditions

 
Wikipedia has a biography of this photographer.Show on this siteGo to website
Getty Research, Los Angeles, USA has an ULAN (Union List of Artists Names Online) entry for this photographer. This is useful for checking names and they frequently provide a brief biography. Go to website
Grove Art Online (www.groveart.com) has a biography of this artist. 
[NOTE: This is a subscription service and you will need to pay an annual fee to access the content.]
Show on this siteGo to website
The Cleveland Museum of Art, USA has a biography on this photographer. [Scroll down the page on this website as the biography may not be immediately visible.]Show on this siteGo to website
The International Photographers Hall of Fame has provided a biography.Show on this siteGo to website
 

Internet resources

Terms and Conditions

 
Bill Brandt 
http://www.billbrandt.com 
  
 

Printed biographies

The following books are useful starting points to obtain brief biographies but they are not substitutes for the monographs on individual photographers.

 
• Auer, Michele & Michel 1985 Encyclopedie Internationale Des Photographes de 1839 a Nos Jours / Photographers Encylopaedia International 1839 to the present (Hermance, Editions Camera Obscura) 2 volumes [A classic reference work for biographical information on photographers.] 
  
• Beaton, Cecil & Buckland, Gail 1975 The Magic Eye: The Genius of Photography from 1839 to the Present Day (Boston and Toronto: Little, Brown & Company) p.194 [Useful short biographies with personal asides and one or more example images.] 
  
• Capa, Cornell (ed.) 1984 The International Center of Photography: Encyclopedia of Photography (New York, Crown Publishers, Inc. - A Pound Press Book) p.79-80 
  
• Evans, Martin Marix (Executive ed.) 1995 Contemporary Photographers [Third Edition] (St. James Press - An International Thomson Publishing Company) [Expensive reference work but highly informative.] 
  
• Fernandez, Horacio (ed.) 2000 Fotografía Pública: Photography in Print 1919-1939 (Aldeasa) p.64 [This Spanish exhibition catalogue is one of the best sources for illustrations of photomontage and book design for the period between the two World Wars.] 
  
• International Center of Photography 1999 Reflections in a Glass Eye: Works from the International Center of Photography Collection (New York: A Bulfinch Press Book) p.209-210 [Includes a well written short biography on Bill Brandt with example plate(s) earlier in book.] 
  
• Lenman, Robin (ed.) 2005 The Oxford Companion to the Photograph (Oxford: Oxford University Press)  [Includes a short biography on Bill Brandt.] 
  
• Weaver, Mike (ed.) 1989 The Art of Photography 1839-1989 (New Haven and London: Yale University Press) p.452 [This exhibition catalogue is for the travelling exhibition that went to Houston, Canberra and London in 1989.] 
  
• Witkin, Lee D. and Barbara London 1979 The Photograph Collector’s Guide (London: Secker and Warburg) p.93 [Long out of print but an essential reference work - the good news is that a new edition is in preparation.] 
  
 

Useful printed stuff

If there is an analysis of a single photograph or a useful self portrait I will highlight it here.

 
• Gruber, Renate and L. Fritz Gruber 1982 The Imaginary Photo Museum (New York: Harmony Books) p.242 
  
• Naef, Weston 1995 The J. Paul Getty Museum - Handbook of the Photographic Collection (Los Angeles: J. Paul Getty Museum) p.204, 208 
  
• Newhall, Beaumont 1982 The History of Photography - Fifth Edition (London: Secker & Warburg) [One or more photographs by Bill Brandt are included in this classic history.] 
  
• Sobieszek, Robert A. and Deborah Irmas 1994 the camera i: Photographic Self-Portraits (Los Angeles: LACMA - Los Angeles County Museum of Art) p.209, Plate 100 [When the Audrey and Sydney Irmas collection was donated to LACMA - Los Angeles County Museum of Art in 1992 the museum gained a remarkable collection of self portraits of notable photographers. If you need a portrait of Bill Brandt this is a useful starting point.] 
  
• Szarkowski, John 1973 Looking at Photographs: 100 Pictures from the Collection of The Museum of Modern Art (New York: The Museum of Modern Art) p.120 [Analyzes a single photograph by Bill Brandt.] 
  

Collections

Photographic collections are a useful means of examining large numbers of photographs by a single photographer on-line. 
  

 
In the 1990 survey of 535 American photographic collections Bill Brandt was represented in 48 of the collections. Source: Andrew H. Eskind & Greg Drake (eds.) 1990 Index to American Photographic Collections [Second Enlarged Edition] (Boston, Massachusetts: G.K. Hall & Co.) 
  
 

Quotations

The wit and wisdom.

 
"In my portraits I try to avoid the fleeting expression and vivacity of a snapshot"
"The vital elements are often momentary, change—sent things, … a gleam of light on water, a trail of smoke from a passing train, a cat crossing the threshold. Sometimes they are a matter of luck, sometimes of patience, waiting for an effect to be repeated that you have seen. It is usually some incidental detail that heightens the effect of a picture, stressing a pattern, deepening the sense of atmosphere."
 
  
 
  
 
  
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