Bill Brandt (1904-1983) was one of the masters of twentieth-century photography. Initially fascinated by surrealism before focussing on the traditions and characters of Victorian England, taken as a whole Brandt’s work constitutes one of the most varied and vivid social documents of Great Britain.
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A Snicket in Halifax, 1937
East Sussex Coast, 1978
Campden Hill, London, 1977
Nude, London, 1952
Jean Dubuffet, 1962
Nude, East Sussex Coast, April 1953
Stonehenge after Thomas Hardy, c. 1946
Gold Cup Day at Ascot, 1933
At ‘Charlie Brown’s’, Limehouse, 1945
Bill Brandt was born in Hamburg, Germany on 3 May 1904, into a wealthy family of bankers and merchants. Born to a British father and German mother, Brandt grew up through the First World War, during which time his father was interned as a British citizen. This would have a profound effect on Brandt who would later renounce his German citizenship. Shortly after the war Brandt contracted tuberculosis, for which he was treated at sanatoria in Switzerland and Austria.
Remaining in Austria after his treatment, Brandt was taken under the wing of the influential socialite Eugenie Schwarzwald. Through Schwarzwald, Brandt was introduced to Grete Kolliner, a portrait photographer who ran a studio in Vienna. At Kolliner’s studio, he acquired many skills, including the lighting, retouching and re-photographing that presented a sitter at his best. His own early versions include George Antheil, Ezra Pound and Schoenberg.
On leaving Vienna in 1930, Brandt spent the next four years in Paris, fascinated by the Surrealist movement, working briefly in the studio of Man Ray. Man Ray’s approach to photography validated the core of Brandt’s aesthetic. Both considered the camera as the ideal medium for producing surreal images, however explored it in very different ways. Man Ray stayed in the studio making technical experiments, while Brandt turned outwards in order to discover the surreal quality of the Paris streets.
From Paris, Brandt moved to London in 1933. His photography at this time focused on British society and the traditions and characters of Victorian England which fascinated him. Both as a photojournalist and an Anglophile, Brandt was drawn to the British class system, and much of his work highlights its inequalities during the inter-war years. Brandt’s early work was a mixture of photojournalism for magazines such as Picture Post, and personal photographic projects that he undertook, some being published as books such as The English At Home (1936), and London At Night (1938). Brandt’s view of England was constructed, in part, to ‘satisfy his childhood fantasies.’ In fact, some of his early photographs for The English at Home were staged scenes in which Brandt used his family and friends as models. Though based in London, in the late 1930s Brandt travelled to the North of England to document its towns and industry. His work from this period continued to reflect social inequality and particularly to poor living conditions of the English working class.
With the onset of the Second World War, Brandt focused again on London, commissioned by the Ministry of Information to capture the underground shelters used during the Blitz. From the mid-1940s, Brandt’s work began to change completely. Moving away from photojournalism, Brandt returned to focus on Surrealism, which had been an early influence from his time spent in Paris. He concentrated almost exclusively on the female nude for the remainder of his career. Using a wide angle lens, Brandt produced abstracted photographs which depict the nude form in surreal ways.
Bill Brandt died in London on 20 December 1983.