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  • Between Dreaming and ActionThe Portraiture of Bill Brandt
  • Kristine Somerville

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Bill Brandt, at home in London, 1982 (photo by Jill Freedman/Getty Images)

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One could argue that photography as an art form reveals the least about its creator. What’s being photographed already exists in the world; the photographer finds it, frames the image and presses the shutter. Whether wrong or right, this attitude suited Bill Brandt, a retiring, mysterious man who so successfully reinvented himself that toward the end of his life he was proclaimed Britain’s most renowned photographer. At the time, critics and collectors had no idea that he was German and hadn’t moved to London until his thirties.

Brandt also had a deep reluctance to talk shop. He wrote almost nothing about his own work. When he occasionally did speak about his photography, he used words such as “magic,” “fantasy,” “unknown” and “bewilderment” to describe what happened between the moment of focusing the lens on a subject and taking the shot. Fortunately he had the eye of a poet, using light and perspective in ways that revealed his subjects as familiar yet strange. He often claimed that anyone could have taken his pictures. He was simply the one with the camera and the luck.

He was born Hermann Wilhelm Brandt in 1904 into the material comfort of an upper-middle-class German family; his father operated a successful shipping and banking business based in Hamburg. As a teenager, he suffered fragile health from tuberculosis, and he was sent to a sanitarium in Davos, Switzerland. During this time of forced inactivity, Brandt started watching movies, studying painting and playing around with his camera. He focused particularly on composition, lighting and atmosphere.

After his health stabilized, Brandt needed to decide what to do with his life. A therapist he had seen in Vienna while visiting his brother Rolf suggested he try photography. Brandt apprenticed himself at the Grete Kolliner studio, where he worked for nearly three years perfecting his darkroom techniques.

In the 1920s he went off to Paris to study with Man Ray. Years later, Brandt credited the surrealist photographer with broadening his skills. More importantly, Ray inspired in him a new excitement about photography and the world. Man Ray appreciated young Brandt’s darkroom expertise but at the time didn’t think much of his photography. He would later reassess his opinion and credit Brandt with infusing English photography with elements of surrealism and the avant-garde.

Avoiding the stock identity of a ’20s artist, Brandt shunned the frantic café society of Montparnasse in favor of exploring the less frequented, frayed margins of the city. He drifted around Europe, his private income [End Page 130] from his parents freeing him from having to scrounge for work. Their support allowed him to work slowly and intentionally on his craft.


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Edith and Osbert Sitwell, at Renishaw Hall, 1945, Bill Brandt © Bill Brandt Archive

Brandt took his time breaking into the illustrated-magazine market. Still, he was conscious of how much competition there was in Paris to get assignments. In London, the photographic scene had not yet taken off. The country was behind the continent in terms of art and photography. Brandt also wanted to find a place where he could turn himself into a new person. His brother Rolf recalled that “Billy” had always wanted to be English and belong to the “fairy-tale island” of his childhood [End Page 131] fantasies. In 1934, he settled in London and made the city his permanent home. He selected as his professional name “Bill Brandt” and soon gave every appearance that he was a British-born gentleman.


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Evelyn Waugh at Piers Court, 1949, Bill Brandt © Bill Brandt Archive

With camera in hand, he took in the city with the sharpness of an outsider, producing two books that were careful studies of English life: The English at Home (1936) and A Night in London (1938). His photographs offered an inventory of British types—bobbies, tailors, homemakers, miners, chambermaids, schoolchildren, shopkeepers—and preserved the world of...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1548-9930
Print ISSN
0191-1961
Pages
pp. 129-135
Launched on MUSE
2014-12-19
Open Access
No
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