Grandeur and Genius

The grandeur and genius of Bill Brandt’s portfolio is considered one of the greatest of the 20th century. It presents a wide range of images – from documentary to landscape and nudes to portraiture. His black and white images, always expressing an attraction towards the strange and the surreal, have become some of the most iconic works in photographic history.

Documentary Photography

Born in 1904 in Hamburg, his interest in photography grew from an early age while he spent much of his youth in Vienna seeking treatment for tuberculosis. Later traveling to Paris for a three month apprenticeship in Man Ray’s studio, his interest in the surrealist school was piqued. His early work, in fact, resembles influences from André Kertész, Eugène Atget, and, of course, Man Ray. Brandt’s return to London in 1931 directed his newly improved practice towards documentary photography. During the 30s, he produced works focusing on the social contrasts and inequalities in daily life, before and during the years of war.

The Post-War Years

During the post-war years, Bill Brandt returned to image making rather than image taking and began creating atmospheric landscapes; sculptural, semi-abstract and surrealist nudes; as well as portraits of his literary and artistic contemporaries. In a statement written by the artist, he declared that, in time, he lost his enthusiasm for reportage. His interest continued to grow for the more poetic trend of photography, “which had already excited (him) in Paris in (his) early days, began to fascinate him again.”

Higher Contrast

The portraits Bill Brandt produced during this time convey the same strange atmosphere and adventurous, at times surrealist spirit, which he considered to be fundamental to his photographic style. During the 1960s, his return to a more artistic approach was also strengthened by his decision to develop and print his photographs with a much higher contrast. This allowed Brandt to enhance their surrealist elements. David Campany in his text title; The Career of a Photographer, the Career of a Photograph – Bill Brandt’s Art of the Document further elaborates on Brandt’s darkroom choices saying;

(In the 60’s) He began to print his negatives much more harshly, sacrificing the mid-tones for more modish graphic blocks of black and white. The rich descriptive information in his negatives would be subsumed, even obliterated in his new aesthetic. It was a technique that looked backward through German expressionist cinema to art photography’s Pictorialist preference for deep shadows and chiaroscuro, but it also connected with the emerging Pop sensibility.”

Thus, the effect within Brandt’s wide array of images produced during this period was greatly intensified.

Bill Brandt, René Magritte, 1966, Silver Gelatin Photograph
Bill Brandt, René Magritte, 1966, Silver Gelatin Photograph

René Magritte

One of the portraits that best encapsulate Bill Brandt’s signature, curious eye is the one of painter René Magritte, which he executed in 1966. The photograph presents René Magritte in an ambiguous location, perhaps a room, looking directly at the camera while holding one of his iconic paintings, titled The Son of Man. The picture is not only filled with surrealist elements, but also is almost a frame within a frame; the painter holding a most notable artwork, one that is considered a surrealist self portrait, photographed by another great master in a surrealist fashion.

Dramatic Composition

Brandt distorts the sense of space in this image by clearly dividing the frame in half straight from the center. The left side of the frame is completely dark, which lends a certain uneasiness to the image. The viewer is unable to identify what’s left in the dark, or even where the photographer and his subject truly are. Brandt dismisses the notion of space and location, as if Magritte is floating in the dark. The only reason we assume that they are in a room is because the right side of the room suggests the presence of a white room. Brandt’s decision to create harsh contrasts in the darkroom while printing the photograph also increases its dramatic effect. Bill Brandt believes that a portrait

ought to tell something about a subject’s past and suggest something about their future.”

And his portrait of Magritte is a clear nod to the painter’s mysterious persona.

The Son of Man

The painting Magritte is holding, titled The Son of Man, is also significant in giving the photograph its multilayered quality. The man depicted in the painting is classic of Magritte’s iconography, and can be found in many of his other works. His face is obscured by an apple, another recurring theme for Magritte, which, in this case, further frustrates the viewer.

“Everything we see hides another thing”

Magritte famously once said;

“Everything we see hides another thing, we always want to see what is hidden by what we see, but it is impossible. Humans hide their secrets too well… There is an interest in that which is hidden and which the visible does not show us. This interest can take the form of a quite intense feeling, a sort of conflict, one might say, between the visible that is hidden and the visible that is present.”

Brandt’s portrait of Magritte is a beautiful visualization of this very quote. He creates multiple layers within one frame, each hiding one more than the other, which are left to the viewer’s interpretation.

Exercising the Strange in Photography

With a wide range of genres from photo-journalism to landscape, portraiture to nudes, the work of Bill Brandt, which he produced over the course of five decades, is now considered some of the greatest works in 20th century photography. His experimental, instinctive approach to the medium gave new meaning to exercising the strange in photography. In 1981, The Royal Photographic Society inaugurated its National Centre of Photography in Bath with an exhibition of 50 years of Brandt’s pictures. His work been featured in numerous major exhibitions and has been collected by cultural institutions including London’s Victoria and Albert Museum, New York’s MoMA, Rochester’s International Museum of Photography, and Paris’ Bibliotheque Nationale.