Bill Brandt is universally regarded as one of the most important British photographers of the 20th century. He was born in Hamburg and grew up in the midst of World War I. The rise of Nazism caused him to renounce his German background, and in turn, he reinvented himself as a South Londoner. He took up photography in the 1920s and was introduced to Man Ray by American poet Ezra Pound during a brief stay in Switzerland in 1927. In 1930, Brandt moved to Paris to assist Man Ray in his studio. It was there he learned about Surrealist film and discovered the poetic nature of photography, which, along with the work of Eugéne Atget, Brassaï, and Henri Cartier-Bresson, had a strong impact on his photographic practice.
Brandt’s photography is not easily categorized, as he was a documentary photographer, a pictorialist, and a surrealist. As a documentarian, he captured the visual distinctions amongst the social classes of England, his content ranging from the high life of the wealthy to the reality of the working class. Brandt published his first book, “The English at Home,” in 1936 and his second book, “A Night in London,” in 1938, modeled after Brassaï’s, “Paris de Nuit,” both illustrating his documentary approach to the medium. As a pictorialist, Brandt’s early fascination for the poetic trend of photography during his days in Paris reemerged, and he began to photograph nudes, portraits, and landscapes. His nudes were Surrealist in their presentation. By cropping the human body, Brandt created ambiguous photographs that were not popular amongst his critics. His aesthetic was vastly different from the prevailing gentle and painterly influenced image making of his contemporaries. He used a 70 year old wooden Kodak; a nineteenth century camera that had no shutter, a wide angle lense, and an aperture the size of a pin-hole creating a great illusion of space, sometimes distorting the perspective. Once he distanced himself from his original roots in documentary photography, Brandt found himself as a photography outsider, but this never dissuaded him from following his artistic instincts. He believed that because photography was a new medium, “everything [was] allowed and everything should be tried. And there [were] certainly no rules about the printing of a picture.”
In the early 1940s, Brandt was photographing landscapes, capturing the atmosphere and essence of a place, which for him meant embodying its dramatic and emotional undertones. In 1944 he took the photograph “Avebury Stone Circle,” named after the Neolithic stone monument created in 2850 BC, located in Wiltshire, in southwest England. The image beautifully captures the movement of a flock of sheep grazing within the grassy land the stone monument rests its mass on. The height of the stones are measured against the size of the sheep, giving the viewer a clear perspective and a great depth of field as the viewer focuses their gaze on the trees and homes in the distance amongst the haze in the background, emphasized by the graininess of the print. The photograph exhibits a wide tonal range from the brightest white to the darkest black, exemplary of many of Brandt’s high contrast prints.
Brandt’s career spanned more than 50 years, during which he mastered a style of photography that embraced a multitude of genres and high contrast printing that became stylistically characteristic of his work, intensifying the power of an image. His oeuvre reflected a world challenged by war, social change, and dynamic shifts in the arts. Although often misunderstood during his lifetime, Bill Brandt will remain one of the foremost visionaries in British 20th century photography. His photographs have an urgency, an austerity, and a power that few of his peers obtained.