Bill Brandt V&A

By Jeremy Miles

HE had the heart of a poet, the eye of a surrealist and the good fortune to be born at precisely the right time.

Bill Brandt came into the world 100 years ago next month destined to become one of the greatest photographers of his era. And what an era! It encompassed war, peace, massive social change and seismic cultural shifts that saw old values overturned amid a maelstrom of technological 

upheaval and creative ferment.  

It was an atmosphere that suited the all-seeing Brandt well. He took what was good, rejected what was bad and stamped his artistic vision onto the public psyche. For such a quietly spoken, gentle individual, he had a refreshingly unsentimental way of dealing with the here and now while remaining acutely attuned to the ghosts of the past.

 Eventually he was to become what the Victoria and Albert Museum, the location of a major new Brandt retrospective, describe as “Britain’s best-loved photographer of modern times.” 

It is an intriguing if apt description for although his father was English, Brandt’s background was decidedly European. He was actually born in Hamburg and started his career in Vienna in 1928  before moving to Paris to work as an assistant to the great Man Ray.

Before long however London beckoned and, in the early 1930s, he settled in Britain. The country would become his home and inspiration until his death in 1983. 

The body of work he produced in a career spanning 50 years was extraordinary.  It included social documentary in the form of studies of a rapidly changing Britain; portraits of artists, writers and thinkers; moodily  evocative landscapes and of course his dramatic and highly sculptural nudes.

Examples of all these, including a series inspired by Thomas Hardy’s Wessex,are on show at the V&A  until July 25. The exhibition contains more 150 mainly vintage gelatin-silver prints covering every major aspect of his career. Created in the darkroom by Brandt himself (he was a formidably good printer), these photographs show his unwavering ability to operate at peak power as both artist and technician. 

Among his most fascinating images are photographs, often taken for illustrated magazines like Picture Post, of the chasm between the haves and have-nots.  The passage of time has served to increase their impact. For the street scenes of London’s East End and the grime and poverty-stricken dignity of the industrial north are no longer part of a pictorial essay of daily life. Today they provide a glimpse of history, a rare chance to see a forgotten world captured in times and places where a camera was a rare sight.  

The choice of photographs and the juxtaposition of images is telling. A miner, soot-blackened and tired at the end of a shift, crouches in a tin tub on the scullery floor as his wife scrubs him clean. Elsewhere, in another more elegant England where coal is simply something the servants fetch to make up the fire, a maid runs a bath for her master or mistress. These are pictures that speak volumes.

There are also beautiful studies of London during the wartime blackout, streets bathed in soft moonlight captured in groundbreaking 20 minute exposures. Brandt it seems was the only photographer to see what was in front of his very eyes and to deliberately set out to capture the ethereal darkness of the blackout. 

Brandt’s portraits meanwhile include classic studies of people, like Picasso, Francis Bacon, Henry Moore and Graham Greene. these photographs could not have been taken by anyone else.

For many of course the name of Bill Brandt means just one thing - the extraordinary studies of nudes that revolutionised life photography.

Using a wide-angle police scenes of crime camera that he’d picked for five shilling, he famously photographed his first nude in 1945 “on the day peace broke out”. On and off for the next 30 years he produced extraordinary pictures first in Victorian interiors and later on the beaches of England and France. Images that explored the human form not only as dramatically sculptural but also as an organic echo of the environment  within which it was photographed. This was Brandt the surrealist at work exploring the one theory that remained constant throughout his long and fascinating career - that real truth can exist beyond reality. Man Ray would have been justly proud.

*Bill Brandt: A Centenary Retrospective is at the Victoria and Albert Museum until July 25. Meanwhile the National Portrait Gallery is also celebrating Brandt’s centenary with a display 40 of his portraits. These works, which include a number of rare vintage prints from the 1940s, will be on show until August 30. 

© Jeremy Miles 2022