Bill Brandt

Review by Wayne Swanson

Who was Bill Brandt? The simple answer is that he was one of the foremost 20thCentury British photographers. Yet he preferred to stay somewhere in the dark shadows of his work, and he remains a bit of a mystery today, almost 40 years after his death.

During a career spanning nearly half a century, he assembled an acclaimed body of work that included photojournalism, portraits, landscapes, and nudes. He can be linked to modernism, surrealism, the Paris avant-garde, Ezra Pound, Man Ray, and Freud, among others. Throw in some tuberculosis, displacement issues, and psychoanalysis, and you have one complex man. This comprehensive retrospective takes us through all of it, deftly covering the wide arc of his career, his signature themes, and how the disparate bodies of work all fit together. 

Structured roughly chronologically, it starts with his early work and photojournalism, including his upstairs/downstairs comparisons of British rich and poor before World War II and his dark images of London during the Blitz. Next come his portraits of literary and artistic luminaries and his foreboding landscapes. Finally, the book shows the progression of his increasingly abstract nudes, which Brandt considered his defining work. 

We see how his photography evolved, yet we also see a through line of underlying ideas and formal concerns from start to finish. Brandt’s images reflect a range of techniques and subjects, but they share a quality he once described as the “familiar and yet strange.” Or as Freud and philosopher Eugenio Trias call it, “the sinister.” Works throughout Brandt’s career tend to be stark, with deep blacks, high contrast, and often a mysterious and dreamlike atmosphere. “The sensation that something unsettling is lurking beneath almost all Brandt’s images has become increasingly unescapable,” notes Ramón Esparza, curator of the companion travelling exhibition developed in conjunction with the book.

Who was Bill Brandt? Critical essays by Esparza, Brandt specialist Maud de la Forterie, and philosopher Nigel Warburton dissect his life and work from psychological, historical, and pictorial perspectives. Brandt’s own thoughts are included in a 1970 statement he wrote about his career, and uncredited text passages introduce the images from each phase of his career.

 The portrait that emerges is one of an outsider who identified as British and for many years supported the fiction that he was born in London. Yet in fact he grew up in Germany and never lost the traces of his German accent. He was withdrawn as a child and was sent to a succession of sanatoriums after contracting tuberculosis, including one that advocated psychoanalysis as a cure. As a young man, Ezra Pound encouraged him to go to Paris, where he worked as an assistant to May Ray and was exposed to the burgeoning Paris avant-garde. As a result he has been associated with Surrealism and various other movements, yet he was never really a part of any one of them. He developed a style reflecting these influences, yet uniquely his own.

With 200 images presented large on 9.5 x 11-inch pages, this well-produced retrospective may not fully answer the question of who Bill Brandt was, but it provides a fascinating look at his life and the remarkably cohesive body of work he created spanning genres and decades.

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Previously reviewed on Photobook Journal is Brandt Nudes.

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Bill Brandt

Photographer: Bill Brandt (1904-1983), born Hamburg, Germany, resided London, England

Publisher: Thames & Hudson (New York, NY, USA, copyright 2020)

Essays: Ramón Esparza, Maud de la Forterie, and Nigel Warburton

Text: English

Hardcover book, sewn binding, 200 black and white images, list of works, bibliography, printed in Spain

Photobook designer: Lacasta Design

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Articles & photographs published on PhotoBook Journal may not be reproduced without the permission of the PhotoBook Journal staff and the photographer(s).

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