Perhaps no photographer of the early twentieth century succeeded in as many genres as Bill Brandt. Born in Germany but having settled in England, Brandt used his camera to capture all sorts of views: landscapes, street scenes, portraits, nudes. Walking through the outstanding retrospective currently on view at the British Art Center, you almost get the impression that one artist could not have produced such a varied body of work.
Yet while curator John-Paul Kernot separates Brandt’s work according to subject, one overriding theme appears: the manipulation of the image. When photography was first invented, it was viewed as the most honest medium ever devised; Niepce and Daguerre intended it to simulate the real world, and Nadar and the second generation of photographers continued to assert the veracity of the photographic image. By the turn of the century, though, artists had discovered that the relationship between the subject of the camera’s lens and the image produced was considerably more complex than the early photographers had ever imagined.
Brandt falls into a category of photographers — among them Man Ray and Andre Kertesz — who examined the deceptive properties of the medium in their art. Manipulation, via both the camera and the development process, became the order of the day. “It is the result that counts,” Brandt said, “not how it is achieved.”
This delight in manipulation makes the BAC exhibition especially important, as it consists entirely of prints Brandt created himself. It assembles 155 photographs from about 35 years of his career, on loan from the Bill Brandt Archive in London. Several of the prints have been retouched by hand; Brandt used a pen or pencil to create the desired effect.
All of this talk about manipulation might seem a little strange at first: the early photographs in the show, especially those of English society in the 1930s, appear as straight-up photojournalism. Consider the eerie nighttime composition “After the Celebration”; Brandt’s photograph looks like a purely journalistic composition. But this nightscape was actually taken during the day, and Brandt played with the image in his darkroom to achieve the impression of night. And the man leaning on the lamppost is not a drunk that Brandt found and spontaneously decided to photograph: it is his brother, modeling for him and playing a role. This simulated scene and chemically manipulated image place Brandt’s photography squarely in the realm of art, not journalism.
This is not to say that Brandt did not have documentary intentions. On the contrary, his documentary photographs are some of his best work. The images of soot-covered miners in West Yorkshire included in the exhibition are particularly strong examples of Brandt’s ability to make personal, affecting journalism. Yet, like Dorothea Lange’s “Migrant Mother,” these photographs should not be seen as objective depictions of the harsh realities of working-class life, but rather as mediated expressions, as subjective impressions of the world.
This subjectivity is seen in Brandt’s portraits, as well: one shot, of E.M. Forster pining away in a club chair at Cambridge, seems almost humorously posed. In a similar vein, the cropped-to-the-extreme eye portraits (of four artists: Arp, Braque, Moore and Giacometti) seem to dictate to you: This is what I want to show you, so this is what you’ll see.
Brandt’s late work is his best, especially his female nudes of the 1950s and 1960s. Tinged with surrealist elements–in “Nude, Camden Hill, London,” a woman’s thigh is enlarged to superhuman proportions–these works are his most innovative and most exciting. Posed on beaches and on hillsides, the nudes have an almost geological character; the women take on elements of the earth. The works are poetic, surprising, witty and stunningly beautiful. If for no other reason than to see these last photographs, this retrospective should not be missed.