Last Updated July 13, 2018

Bill Brandt

German (Born 1904 - Died 1983 ) PREMIUM LISTING
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Address: Bill Brandt Archive Ltd
4 Airlie Gardens
W8 7AJ


Influence: Historically influential or important

Bill Brandt pursued a range of photographic interests, and excelled in at least four areas: social reportage, landscape, portraiture and the female nude. It was the latter genre that Brandt, in an early eighties TV documentary, credited as his greatest achievement.

His early social documentary work featured predominantly subtle midtones. It was only in his later, and more famous, nudes and landscapes that he made strikingly high-contrast prints. Later in his life, Brandt took existing prints and rephotographed, reprinted and retouched them to attain the desired effect.

Brandt was born in Hamburg, Germany, into a wealthy family of Lutheran bankers and traders – the son of a British father and German mother. Brandt grew up during World War 1, during which his father, who had lived in Germany since the age of five, was interned for six months by the Germans as a British citizen. In later life Brandt disowned his German heritage and would claim he was born in south London. Shortly after the war, he contracted tuberculosis and spent much of his youth, during the 1920s, in a sanatorium in Davos, Switzerland, during which time it is assumed he discovered photography.

In 1927 Brandt travelled to Vienna, where he was helped by Dr Eugenie Schwarzwald. She found him a position in a portrait studio. It is likely that she also introduced him to the American poet Ezra Pound. Pound apparently gave Brandt an immensely valuable introduction to Man Ray. Brandt assisted Man Ray in Paris for several months in 1930. Early Brandt photographs experiment with angular modernist styles and night photography.

Another influence was the Hungarian-born photographer Brassai. When camera flashbulbs first appeared around 1930, Brassai made the most of them, exploding pockets of light inside the sexy urban darkness for his great book Paris by Night.

In 1933 Brandt moved to London and began documenting all levels of British society. In 1934 he and his wife settled in Belsize Park, north London. Brandt adopted Britain as his home and it became the subject of his greatest photographs. His style of documentary was uncommon at that time. Brandt published two books showcasing this work, The English at Home (1936) and A Night in London (1938). He was a regular contributor to magazines such as Lilliput, Picture Post, and Harper's Bazaar.

It was during the wartime blitz that Brandt found his darkest materials. Here London’s blackouts offered him darkness as the ordinary condition of the world. And the German air raids that disemboweled whole neighborhoods produced a landscape of found Surrealism in which the entrails of bombed-out apartments hung weirdly in midair. Some of this work can be seen in his book, "Camera in London" (1948).

To mark the arrival of peace in 1945 he began a celebrated series of nudes. The originality of Brandt's nudes begins with his passion for technical innovation. Nudity itself often seems less important to him than the formal possibilities of photographing a figure in a room. Brandt's inspiration here did not come from earlier masters of nude photography, but from the many inventions of the most important film in his life, Orson Welles's Citizen Kane.

To exploit fully the possibilities of deep focus, Brandt took a step backwards in camera technology and began working with a Kodak wide angle: "It had a fixed focus, no shutter, and could take a complete panorama of a room with a single exposure".

His major books from the post-war period are Literary Britain (1951), and Perspective of Nudes (1961), followed by Shadow of Light (1966), a selection of his best pictures in all genres.

Brandt was in partial eclipse from the late 1960s until his death, mostly taking portraits, and somewhat sidelined due to the attention given to the new generation of 'celebrity' photographers, led by David Bailey, Terence Donovan and Brian Duffy.

Brandt died in London in 1983.


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