A Great Master of 20th Century Photography

Considered one of the great masters of 20th century photography, Bill Brandt was born in Hamburg in 1904. His black and white photographic portfolio is accepted to be among the most varied, as it presents an array of styles from documentary to surrealist nudes. 

Meeting Man Ray

Shortly after World War I, Brandt contracted tuberculosis and spent much of his youth in Switzerland, and later in Vienna to seek treatment, where he grew an interest towards photography. In 1928, he took a portrait of poet Ezra Pound, who, in appreciation, introduced Brandt to Man Ray for a three month apprenticeship in Man Ray’s Paris studio. Brandt’s early work from this era, especially resembles influences from the likes of Andre Kertesz and Eugene Atget, as well as Man Ray and the surrealists.

Returning to London

In 1931, he returned to London, well versed in the technique and intricacies of photography. Working with Man Ray allowed Brandt to grasp the poetic possibilities of the medium, as well as an exploration of various printing methods. During the 30s, Brandt produced some of his most historic reportages and photographs, observing extreme social contrasts and daily life during the years before the war. The English at Home, and A Night in London, which were created in this decade, would become crucial early monographs in his career.

Juxtaposing the Wealthy Bourgeois and the Poor Working Class

The work of Bill Brandt during the 1930s emphasized social inequality in England through a display of extreme contrasts of wealth in the British society. His series juxtaposed wealthy bourgeois and the poor working class. David Company, in his essay titled ‘The Career of a Photographer, the Career of a Photograph – Bill Brandt’s Art of the Document’, commented saying that

for him (Brandt), to photograph these minutiae was not simply to document but to estrange through a heightened sense of atmosphere, theatrical artifice and a dreamlike sensibility.”

It was also an era for Brandt where he devoted himself to practicing photography as journalism, and documented the state of England, which was ultimately both strange and familiar to him. It was familiar in the sense that Brandt had a British father, but strange as he had spent most of his life abroad. With the eye of an anthropologist, he recorded the social structure in a visually poetic way while also exposing Britain as a class divided country.

Bill Brandt, Parlourmaid Preparing a Bath before Dinner, 1930s, printed 1970s, Silver Gelatin Photograph
Bill Brandt, Parlourmaid Preparing a Bath before Dinner, 1930s, printed 1970s, Silver Gelatin Photograph

The English at Home

Brandt’s book, The English at Home, published in 1936, was a milestone both for documentary photography as well as his career. The book was designed in a way where the left pages displayed scenes from the life and home of his upper class relatives, whereas the right pages were of the everyday life of the poor in Britain. The reader could view pairings such as ‘a playground scene in London’s working class East End placed opposite a photo of an upper middle-class children’s party in Kensington, west London.’

The majority of his photographs were posed by Brandt’s English family, where staged and restaged memories and childhood fantasies. This was also a juxtaposition of realism and theatre, where at one side he photographed ‘social actors’, his friends and family, in realistic stage sets, and on the other side we see real people of the lower class as they are in their unescapable surroundings.

Parlourmaid and Under-Parlourmaid Ready to Serve Dinner

Bill Brandt, Parlourmaid and Under-Parlourmaid Ready to Serve Dinner
Bill Brandt, Parlourmaid and Under-Parlourmaid Ready to Serve Dinner

One of the most striking, and perhaps the best known photographs featured in The English at Home series is his picture titled Parlourmaid and Under-parlourmaid Ready to Serve Dinner, originally taken in 1933. The black and white image shows a well dressed dinner table, and the two parlourmaids waiting to serve. The head parlourmaid on the left is Pratt; she works in the house of Brandt’s uncle and aunt, and plays a significant role as one of his typical figures.

The Perfect Parlourmaid

In 1939 for example, Brandt carried out a reportage for Picture Post titled The Perfect Parlourmaid, in which she followed Pratt from dawn to dusk, recording her rituals and routines. In this photograph, Pratt “expresses a stern resentment mixed with weariness and professional discipline, but there is a kind of blankness about her too. Her junior has the vacant expression of an adolescent, not yet able to grasp the social forces that will shape her, perhaps.”

Dismissing the Necessity for a Juxtaposing Image

This single photograph is especially unusual and special, in the sense that it the very social contrast Brandt conveys throughout is book is present within a single frame, dismissing the necessity for a juxtaposing image. The two maids who come from a lower class within the social hierarchy is pictured in the very world of the luxurious English that they resent. “Brandt deliberately focused on the shiny glass and silverware of the dining table. The parlourmaids behind are not so crisp.”, which further accentuates the conditions of this upper class household. Brandt also puts emphasis on controlling the depth of field with the use of flash photography, where the viewer’s eye is directed towards the shiny dining table in the foreground first, and later towards the parlourmaids. David Company further comments on the composition saying;

We can still see that they avoid eye contact with the camera – as if averting their gaze from their master (they “know their place”). The camera clearly ‘sees’ them, offering them a vital place in the composition, but it does not to focus on them.”

The parlourmaids being out of focus, becomes the very focus of the image, and a larger metaphor of the social contrasts which Brandt so subtly executes.

Bill Brandt, Parlourmaid at Window in Kensington, 1936-39, printed 1970s, Silver Gelatin Photograph
Bill Brandt, Parlourmaid at Window in Kensington, 1936-39, printed 1970s, Silver Gelatin Photograph

Five Decades Recording Life in Britain

Over the course of five decades, Bill Brandt’s photographic career included an incredible range of genres; social documentary, portraiture, the nude and landscape. His documentary photographs from the 30s onwards, however, is considered the most varied and vivid recordings of life in Britain during the World Wars. Having held major solo exhibitions around the world, his work is included in the collections of London’s Victoria and Albert Museum, New York’s MoMA, Rochester’s International Museum of Photography, and Paris’ Bibliotheque Nationale. His masterful balance and play between documentaries and artist is still a significant reference point among photographers and art historians today.