- Place of origin:
West Yorkshire (photographed)
ca. 1945 (photographed)
Brandt, Bill, born 1904 - died 1983 (photographer)
- Materials and Techniques:
gelatin silver print
- Credit Line:
Given by Bill Brandt
- Museum number:
- Gallery location:
Prints & Drawings Study Room, level F, case X, shelf 911, box R
Bill Brandt (1904-83) is the finest British photographer of modern times. He photographed with imagination, compassion and humour. His photographs show us the vivid interactions of social life and the realities of labour and class. He is a witness to the Depression of the 1930s and the Blitz of 1940. He revised and renewed the major artistic genres of portraiture, landscape and the nude.
Bill Brandt brought to the British scene a unique sensibility formed elsewhere, He saw Britain with the eyes of a continental European and a Surrealist.
His achievement is central to the development of photography as an artistic medium in Britain but he was also admired by great masters elsewhere - including Brassaï in Paris, Edward Steichen, Walker Evans and Robert Frank in New York, and Eikoh Hosoe in Tokyo.
A black and white photograph by Bill Brandt of a house set on a hill top covered with overgrown grasses. Some trees and a smaller house are visible in the background. The horizon is composed of a silhouette of rolling hills.
Place of Origin
West Yorkshire (photographed)
ca. 1945 (photographed)
Brandt, Bill, born 1904 - died 1983 (photographer)
Materials and Techniques
gelatin silver print
height: 23 cm image, width: 19.6 cm cm
Object history note
Bill Brandt was born in Hamburg on 2 May 1904 to an English father and a German mother. He suffered from bullying as a schoolboy after the First World War. Because of this experience, and later the rise of Nazism, Brandt disowned his German background. In later life he said that he was born in south London.
He 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 addition to Surrealism, 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. Shortly after, the first collection of Brandt’s photographs were published.
The English at Home
'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.'
Brandt visited England during the late 1920s but he and his wife settled in Belsize Park, north London in 1934. He 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 (by the great picture-editor Stefan Lorant) of Lilliput (1937) and Picture Post (1938). 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 the 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.
A Night in London
'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.'
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 ways, using the 'day for night' technique employed by cinematographers to transform images photographed in daylight into night scenes.
'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.'
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.
Priestly 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.
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 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, plus a second set 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'.
'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.'
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.
'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.'
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 experimented with photography of the nude in the 1930s and early 1940s but 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's 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 as models for his nudes.
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.
In 1978 the V&A negotiated with Bill Brandt's agents, Marlborough Fine Art, for the acquisition of 200 prints. These were the first works by Brandt acquired by the newly established Photographs Section of the Department of Prints, Drawings and Paintings. They were printed in the high-contrast style which Brandt adopted in the 1950s and for which he is best known today.
These were not the first Brandt works to be acquired by the V&A. Up until 1977, photographs at the V&A were acquired by the National Art Library as models and research material for 'all variety of workers'. At the time, denied a place within the Museum's curatorial departments, modern photographs made their way into the collection through the Circulation department which provided loan exhibitions to regional museums and colleges throughout the UK. It was through the Circulation department that the first Brandt acquisition of twenty-six nudes was made by the Museum in 1964. This was followed in 1975 by twelve works chosen by Curator Mark Haworth-Booth and included in the touring exhibition 'The Land' which were shown along with Brandt's own selection. In 1977, photographs acquired by the Library and Circulation departments were formally transferred to the newly formed photographs section and all the Brandt photographs were consolidated within the same department.
There have been important Brandt acquisitions since then, including eight vintage prints donated by Bill Brandt himself in 1980. This image was one of the works included in that gift. Brandt disliked his muted earlier (vintage) prints but, as the Museum asked for them for the benefit of photography students, graciously gave examples.
Other gifts include Underground shelter photographs commissioned by the Ministry of Information in 1940 and donated by Sir Fife Clark in 1981, and six early works from Vienna and the Great Hungarian Plain given by Mr and Mrs J.R. Marsh in 1999.
In 1980 the V&A commissioned new portrait photographs of Ted Hughes and Tom Stoppard by Brandt for an exhibition about literature organised by the National Art Library. Samuel Beckett was on the list but he and Brandt could not agree on a location for the portrait.
In 2003 the V&A acquired two albums containing some 400 photographs, mainly by Bill Brandt. The albums were compiled in the years 1928-39 by his first wife Eva Boros. They illustrate Brandt's early photographic experiments as he travelled with Eva from Vienna to Hungary, Hamburg, Paris, Barcelona and Madrid before finally settling in London in 1934.
Black and white photograph by Bill Brandt, 'Top Withens', gelatin silver print, ca. 1945
Bibliographic References (Citation, Note/Abstract, NAL no)
Brandt, Bill with commentary by Norah Wilson. Camera in London. London: The Focal Press, 1948.
Brandt, Bill with an introduction by Raymond Mortimer. The English at Home. London: BT Batsford, Ltd, 1936.
Brandt, Bill with introductions by Cyril Connolly and Mark Haworth-Booth. Shadow of Light, revised and extended edition. London: Gordon Fraser, 1977, pl. 116.
Brandt, Bill. London in the Thirties. London: Gordon Fraser, 1983.
Brandt, Bill. Literary Britain/ 2nd revised and expanded edition with introduction by John Hayward, foreword by Sir Roy Strong, afterward by Mark Haworth-Booth and Tom Hopkinson. London: Victoria and Albert Museum in association with Hurtwood Press, 1984, pl. 9.
Brandt, Bill with introduction by Michael Hiley. Nudes 1945-1980. London: Gordon Fraser, 1980.
Brandt, Bill with preface by Lawrence Durrell, introduction by Chapman Mortimer. Perspective of Nudes. London: Bodley Head, 1961.
Brandt, Bill with introduction by James Bone. A Night in London: Story of a London Night in Sixty-Four Photographs. London: Country Life; Londres de Nuit, Paris: Arts et Metiers Graphiques; New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1938.
Jay, Bill and Nigel Warburton. Brandt: The Photography of Bill Brandt. London: Thames and Hudson, 1999.
Warburton, Nigel, ed. Bill Brandt: Selected texts and bibliography. Oxford: Clio Press, 1993.
Jeffrey, Ian. Bill Brandt: Photographs, 1928-1983. London: Thames and Hudson, 1993.
Haworth-Booth, Mark introduction and essay by David Mellor. Bill Brandt: Behind the Camera. Photographs, 1928-1983. Oxford: Phaidon, 1985.
Delany, Paul. Bill Brandt: A Life. London: Jonathan Cape, 2004.
Brand, Bill with an introduction by David Travis. Vintage Prints. Chicago: Edwynn Houk Gallery, 1985.
Prints, Drawings & Paintings Collection