07
Aug
13

Exhibition: ‘Bill Brandt: Shadow and Light’ at The Museum of Modern Art, New York

Exhibition dates: 6th March – 12th August 2013

 

“Brandt ranks among the visionaries who, in the diversity of their approach, established the creative potential of photography based on observation of the world around them. Brandt’s distinctive vision – his ability to present the mundane world as fresh and strange – emerged in London in the 1930s, and drew from his time in the Paris studio of Man Ray. His visual explorations of the society, landscape, and literature of England are indispensable to any understanding of photographic history and, arguably, to our understanding of life in Britain during the middle of the 20th century.”

.
Text from the press release

 

 

I believe that Bill Brandt, along with Julia Margaret Cameron, is the greatest British photographer of all time.

Why is it so?

  1. There is the diversity of his approach over decades of artistic endeavour, from social documentary, portrait and landscape photography to nudes.
  2. There is a consistency to this enquiry. He is concerned with the same ideas in the 1930s as the 1960s, only expressed in a different form.
  3. There is a subtle ambiguity to all his work, no doubt influenced by his time in the Paris studio of Man Ray.
    For example, in the portrait of Northumbrian Miner at His Evening Meal (1937, below), there is an odd sense of surrealism to the mise-en-scène. Notice the placement of the objects on the table, the positioning of both people’s heads with the jardiniere between, and the askance attitude of the satchel and framed image covered by drying, hanging clothes on the wall behind. And then, just to emphasise this pictorial disjunction, we notice that the miner is leaning one way and, in the framed image, another man with a tie is leaning the other, peering around  the edge of the drying clothes. The man and wife and the framed man for a triangle within the pictorial plane.
  4. There is his understanding of light. Look at any of the images in this posting – Bombed Regency Staircase, Upper Brook Street, Mayfair (c. 1942, below), Evening in Kenwood (c. 1934, below) etc… and marvel at Brandt’s “ability to present the mundane world as fresh and strange.” Looking at the light of the world with a sense of wonder!
  5. And his understanding of “perspective”.
    Brandt is not afraid of the out of focus photograph as long as it gives him the “feeling” that he wants from the image. For example, see Losing at the Horse Races, Auteuil, Paris (c. 1932, below), shot from below, quickly, to capture the pensiveness of loosing money.
    Brandt is not afraid of foreshortening as in the photographs Evening in Kenwood (c. 1934, below) or A Snicket in Halifax (1937, below), where the use of this device leads the viewers eye into the body of the image.
    Brandt is also not afraid of a shallow depth of field or of placing objects or people right in the forefront of the image in order to create a complex picture plane. For example, in Kensington Children’s Party (c. 1934, below) the two children at bottom right are completely out of focus but hold up that corner of the image and give the image the stability and energy it needs to lead the eye into the small, frontal boy and the suspended balloons. Notice the really shallow depth of field, as only the girl at extreme right and a small number of balloons are in focus. Another later and more extreme example is the photograph Seaford, East Sussex Coast (1957, below) and the distortions in his book Perspective of Nudes (1961) – “a series that is both personal and universal, sensual and strange… rendering what might otherwise have been hopelessly clichéd aspects of the female form unfamiliar and surprising.”
    .

Brandt’s skewed perspectives are not only literal but also have psychological undertones. His work challenges traditional ideas of identity, place and time and makes the mundane seem fresh and strange. Over and over again. These photographs remain as fresh today as the day they were taken BECAUSE OF THE COMPLEXITY OF THOUGHT THAT LIES BEHIND EACH IMAGE.

Many a photographer could do no better than study the work of this incredible artist. I see so many images in Melbourne and from around the world that really say nothing and go nowhere, because of a lack of understanding of what is POSSIBLE when making a photograph, when telling a story. Rules are there to be broken, out of focus, shallow depth of field, complex pictures, complex thoughts succinctly and elegantly told. For Brandt in any photograph, the artifice necessary to make a work was irrelevant so long as he felt the picture rang true. That does not mean lazy story telling, poor conceptualisation, bland visual construction.

As a good friend of mine artist Joyce Evans is fond of saying, “There is no excuse for bad photography.”

Dr Marcus Bunyan

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Many thankx to the Museum of Modern Art for allowing me to publish the photographs in the posting. Please click on the photographs for a larger version of the image.

 

 

Bill Brandt (British, born Germany. 1904-1983) 'Parlourmaid Preparing a Bath before Dinner' c. 1936

 

Bill Brandt (British, born Germany. 1904-1983)
Parlourmaid Preparing a Bath before Dinner
c. 1936
Gelatin silver print
9 1/16 x 7 11/16″ (23 x 19.5 cm)
The Museum of Modern Art. Horace W. Goldsmith Fund through Robert B. Menschel
© 2012 Bill Brandt Archive Ltd.

 

Bill Brandt (British, born Germany. 1904-1983) 'Northumbrian Miner at His Evening Meal' 1937

 

Bill Brandt (British, born Germany. 1904-1983)
Northumbrian Miner at His Evening Meal
1937
Gelatin silver print
8 3/4 x 7 3/8″ (22.2 x 18.8 cm)
The Museum of Modern Art. John Parkinson III Fund
© 2012 Bill Brandt Archive Ltd.

 

brandt-northumbrian-b-web

 

brandt-northumbrian-a-web

 

Analysis of Brandt’s visual exploration in Northumbrian Miner at His Evening Meal (1937)

 

Bill Brandt (British, born Germany. 1904-1983) 'Packaging Post for the War' c. 1942

 

Bill Brandt (British, born Germany. 1904-1983)
Packaging Post for the War
c. 1942
Gelatin silver print
8 3/16 x 7 13/16″ (20.8 x 19.9 cm)
Acquired through the generosity of Mark Levine
© 2013 Estate of Bill Brandt

 

Bill Brandt (British, born Germany. 1904-1983) 'Liverpool Street Underground Station Shelter' 1940

 

Bill Brandt (British, born Germany. 1904-1983)
Liverpool Street Underground Station Shelter
1940
Gelatin silver print
11 11/16 x 9 11/16″ (29.7 x 24.6 cm)
© 2013 Estate of Bill Brandt

 

Bill Brandt (British, born Germany. 1904-1983) 'Kensington Children's Party' c. 1934

 

Bill Brandt (British, born Germany. 1904-1983)
Kensington Children’s Party
c. 1934
Gelatin silver print
8 5/8 x 7 3/16″ (21.9 x 18.3 cm)
The Museum of Modern Art. Gift of David Dechman and Michel Mercure
© 2012 Estate of Bill Brandt

 

Bill Brandt (British, born Germany. 1904-1983) 'Evening in Kenwood' c. 1934

 

Bill Brandt (British, born Germany. 1904-1983)
Evening in Kenwood
c. 1934
Gelatin silver print
9 x 7 3/4″ (22.9 x 19.7 cm)
The Museum of Modern Art. Acquired through the generosity of David Dechman and Michel Mercure and the Committee on Photography Fund.
© 2012 Bill Brandt Archive Ltd.

 

 

“The Museum of Modern Art presents Bill Brandt: Shadow and Light, a major critical reevaluation of the heralded career of Bill Brandt (British, b. Germany, 1904-83) from March 6 to August 12, 2013. A founding figure in photography’s modernist traditions, Brandt ranks among the visionaries who, in the diversity of their approach, established the creative potential of photography based on observation of the world around them. Brandt’s distinctive vision – his ability to present the mundane world as fresh and strange – emerged in London in the 1930s, and drew from his time in the Paris studio of Man Ray. His visual explorations of the society, landscape, and literature of England are indispensable to any understanding of photographic history and, arguably, to our understanding of life in Britain during the middle of the 20th century. Bill Brandt: Shadow and Light is organized by Sarah Meister, Curator, with Drew Sawyer, Beaumont and Nancy Newhall Curatorial Fellow, Department of Photography.

The impressive breadth of Brandt’s career, which suggests his restless experimental impulse, and the dramatic transformations of his printing style have often confounded those seeking to understand the link between the highly celebrated and seemingly unrelated chapters of his oeuvre. The exhibition brings together more than 150 works divided into six sections, each corresponding with a distinct aspect of Brandt’s achievement: London in the Thirties; Northern England; World War II; Portraits; Landscapes; and Nudes. Beginning with a highly selective display of albums and prints made around the European continent as Brandt was forming his artistic identity, the exhibition presents an opportunity to understand Brandt in a new light: one that establishes a chronological trajectory of his career, with an expanded consideration of his activity during World War II. In addition, a closer look at his printing methods with the finest known prints from across the range of Brandt’s career will clarify how the artist, whose early work is characterized by the muted, wistful portrait of a young housewife scrubbing the threshold to her home (East End Morning, 1937), would come to create a bold and unpredictable series of nudes on the rocky English coast (East Sussex Coast, 1957).

Brandt established his reputation before the Second World War with the publication of The English at Home (1936) and A Night in London (1938), books that distilled his early photographic studies of life in Britain. Noted works from this period on view include: Parlourmaid Preparing a Bath before Dinner (c. 1936); Soho Bedroom (1934); Street Scene, London (1936); and Losing at the Horse Races, Auteuil, Paris (c. 1932), which Brandt later re-titled Racegoers in Sandown Park in order to present it in the context of his English pictures, an expression of his disdain for slavish adherence to facts.

During this same period, Brandt ventured to several industrial towns in northern England to witness firsthand the impact of the Depression. Striking images from this group, including Snicket in Halifax (1937), Coal-Searcher Coming Home from Jarrow (1937), and Northumbrian Miner at His Evening Meal (1937), bear unequivocal witness to the devastating unemployment that plagued the region at the time, but there is a subtle ambiguity to many of these images that suggests Brandt found the artistic potential of these soot-blackened structures and faces competing for his attention.

Brandt’s activity during the Second World War – long distilled by Brandt and others to a handful of now-iconic pictures of moonlit London during the Blackout and improvised shelters during the Blitz – are presented for the first time in the context of his assignments for the leading illustrated magazines of his day, establishing a key link between his pre- and postwar work. In addition to photographs such as Liverpool Street Underground Station Shelter (1940) and Deserted Street in Bloomsbury (1942), this section includes lesser-known works from the period such as: Bombed Regency Staircase, Upper Brook Street, Mayfair (c. 1942); Packaging Post for the War (c. 1942); and a suite of extraordinary wartime portraits.

Brandt’s assignments for Picture Post and Lilliput magazines, as well as Harper’s Bazaar (UK and US), led variously into extended investigations of portraiture and landscape photography, with a strong emphasis on contemporary literary figures in Britain and the country’s rich literary heritage. A solemn, vaguely distracted expression became a hallmark of Brandt’s portraiture, and notable examples on view include Dylan Thomas, Norman Douglas, Evelyn Waugh, Reg Butler, Harold Pinter, Martin Amis, Tom Stoppard, Vanessa Redgrave, Barbara Hepworth, Henry Moore, and Francis Bacon.

Brandt’s crowning artistic achievement – published as Perspective of Nudes in 1961 – is a series that is both personal and universal, sensual and strange, collectively exemplifying the “sense of wonder”, to quote Brandt, that is paramount in his photographs. His extended investigation of the female nude remains his most original and memorable work, defying preconceived notions of the genre with his choice of settings (inhospitably barren seashores or prim Victorian interiors that conflated the domestic and the sexual in lieu of sterile, but safe, studios), as well as the extreme exaggeration of his distortions, cropping, and printing styles, rendering what might otherwise have been hopelessly clichéd aspects of the female form unfamiliar and surprising. On view are over 40 photographs from this period, including four prints of his iconic London (1952), which together suggest Brandt’s willingness to reinterpret even the most supremely resolved images in his oeuvre.

Through a rigorous analysis of each chapter of Brandt’s career across a half century of work, the exhibition clarifies the achievement of this towering figure in photography’s modernist tradition.”

Press release from the MoMA website

 

Bill Brandt (British, born Germany. 1904-1983) 'Bombed Regency Staircase, Upper Brook Street, Mayfair' c. 1942

 

Bill Brandt (British, born Germany. 1904-1983)
Bombed Regency Staircase, Upper Brook Street, Mayfair
c. 1942
Gelatin silver print
9 x 7 5/8″ (22.8 x 19.4 cm)
The Museum of Modern Art. Acquired through the generosity of Clarissa A. Bronfman
© 2012 Bill Brandt Archive Ltd.

 

Bill Brandt (British, born Germany. 1904-1983) 'A Snicket in Halifax' 1937

 

Bill Brandt (British, born Germany. 1904-1983)
A Snicket in Halifax
1937
Gelatin silver print
9 x 7 11/16″ (22.9 x 19.6 cm)
Carl Jacobs Fund
© 2013 Estate of Bill Brandt

 

Bill Brandt (British, born Germany. 1904-1983) 'Street Scene, London' 1936

 

Bill Brandt (British, born Germany. 1904-1983)
Street Scene, London
1936
Gelatin silver print
9 1/16 x 7 11/16″ (23 x 19.6 cm)
© 2013 Estate of Bill Brandt

 

This picture, first published in Brandt’s book A Night in London in 1938, recalls the work of the Hungarian-born photographer Brassaï, who had a particular talent for capturing illicit, marginalized, or unconventional activity in the lamplit streets of Paris. Many of Brandt’s pictures, however, feature his family members playing roles. Here he placed his brother and sister-in-law, Rolf and Esther Brandt, in front of a large poster. Using a nearby streetlight or perhaps his own floodlight, Brandt cast Rolf’s profile in melodramatic shadow. The artifice necessary to make a work was irrelevant for Brandt so long as he felt the picture rang true . (Text from MoMA website)

 

Bill Brandt (British, born Germany. 1904-1983) 'Soho Bedroom' 1934

 

Bill Brandt (British, born Germany. 1904-1983)
Soho Bedroom
1934
Gelatin silver print
8 3/4 x 7 9/16″ (22.2 x 19.2 cm)
Acquired through the generosity of Michèle Gerber Klein
© 2013 Estate of Bill Brandt

 

Bill Brandt (British, born Germany. 1904-1983) 'Haworth Churchyard' 1945

 

Bill Brandt (British, born Germany. 1904-1983)
Haworth Churchyard
1945
Gelatin silver print
8 15/16 x 7 11/16″ (22.7 x 19.5 cm)
The Museum of Modern Art. Acquired through the generosity of Jon L. Stryker.
© 2012 Bill Brandt Archive Ltd.

 

Bill Brandt (British, born Germany. 1904-1983) 'Losing at the Horse Races, Auteuil, Paris' c. 1932

 

Bill Brandt (British, born Germany. 1904-1983)
Losing at the Horse Races, Auteuil, Paris
c. 1932
Gelatin silver print
8 3/8 x 6 15/16″ (21.3 x 17.6 cm)
The Museum of Modern Art. Gift of Edwynn Houk
© 2012 Bill Brandt Archive Ltd.

 

Bill Brandt (British, born Germany. 1904-1983) 'Jean Dubuffet' 1960

 

Bill Brandt (British, born Germany. 1904-1983)
Jean Dubuffet
1960
Gelatin silver print
8 3/8 x 7 1/4″ (21.3 x 18.4 cm)
The Museum of Modern Art. John Parkinson III Fund
© 2012 Bill Brandt Archive Ltd.

 

Bill Brandt (British, born Germany. 1904-1983) 'London' 1954

 

Bill Brandt (British, born Germany. 1904-1983)
London
1954
Gelatin silver print
9 1/8 x 7 3/4″ (23.1 x 19.7 cm)
The Museum of Modern Art. Acquired through the generosity of Clarissa Alcock Bronfman and Richard E. Salomon
© 2012 Bill Brandt Archive Ltd.

 

Bill Brandt A Perspective of Nudes 1961

A book that looks back to Kertesz’s Distortions and forward to the psychedelia of the late 60s. As Vince Aletti writes in The Book of 101 Books, Brandt “conjure[d] a dream world of skewed perspectives in which his nude female subjects appeared to float unanchored or loom like giants.” Parr and Badger writing in The Photobook: A History, vol. 1, assert that these images “rewrote the language of nude photography in not one, but several quarters… [they are] as interesting for their psychological undertones as for the wealth of unexpected forms he conjured… Brandt pictured a world of faded grandeur, of Edwardian bourgeois homes metamorphosing into 1940s bedsit land – cavernous refuges for European émigrés or bohemian nonconformists.”

 

Bill Brandt (British, born Germany. 1904-1983) 'Seaford, East Sussex Coast' 1957

 

Bill Brandt (British, born Germany. 1904-1983)
Seaford, East Sussex Coast
1957
Gelatin silver print
9 x 7 11/16″ (22.9 x 19.5 cm)
The Museum of Modern Art. Gift of David Dechman and Michel Mercure
© 2012 Bill Brandt Archive Ltd.

 

 

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Dr Marcus Bunyan

Dr Marcus Bunyan is an Australian artist and writer. His work explores the boundaries of identity and place. He writes the Art Blart blog which reviews exhibitions in Melbourne, Australia and posts exhibitions from around the world. He has a Dr of Philosophy from RMIT University, Melbourne and is currently studying a Master of Art Curatorship at The University of Melbourne.

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