Bill Brandt (1904-1983)
The slender threads of understanding are stretched to their limits when
theorists attempt to analyse Brandt’s life and times. Continuing his series,
John Chillingworth, who recalls processing film for some of Brandt’s
‘stories’ during WWII, evaluates the self-effacing gentleness of the man,
from whose work so many photo-art freaks have profited since his death.
For his generation, Paris was the centre of the world. Bill Brandt, at the
age of twenty-five, started his photographic career there in 1929.
He spent three months studying photography in the studio of Man Ray, who had
recently discovered solarisation. The great man’s deep commitment to
photo-surrealism in his still images and on film also interested Brandt, but
never one to follow fashion, he moved on.
Born in Hamburg, of Anglo-American parents and raised in Germany, his
formative years were spent in England, where at sixteen he contracted TB,
then an incurable disease.
For the ‘cure’ he was shipped off to Switzerland. Six years of isolation
had, he was told, affected his mental processes to such an extent that it
was deemed appropriate for him to be exposed to the fashionable process of
psychoanalysis in Vienna.
Fortunately, he rapidly threw off the effects of stress, so often
experienced by his fellow sufferers and shunned further contact with
Whilst in Paris, Brandt also became enamoured of documentary photography.
There, he worked contemporarily with Henri Cartier Bresson and Brassai until
returning to London in 1931, where the age of the British picture magazine
was about to begin.
As an observer of the British way of life, Brandt became obsessed,
photographically, with the social contrasts of the day.
Whilst others, like Hayward Magee, James Jarché, Kurt Hubschmann, Hans
Bauman and Humphrey Spender were employed or intermittently retained, as
they revelled in the advantages of the Leica for ‘candid’ photography; a
free spirit, Brandt photographed London with his 6cm x 6cm format camera.
A gentle, unassuming man, presumably with a small private income, his
professional approach enabled him to move comfortably in high society.
He was also at ease rubbing shoulders with the ‘working-class’ that in the
1930’s meant the unemployed, entering pubs, common lodging-houses, theatres
and prisons - and to observe personal relationships in an age when all was
new in British documentary photography.
As he did so, he developed a style and a means of creating drama in his
images. Travelling throughout the country for his freelance picture stories,
their pictorial and human qualities were remarkable, even to Fleet Street
Having processed some of his later films, in my innocence, I would have
called them ‘underexposed’. To him, they were the perfect medium for the
dark and brooding prints that had already become the Brandt documentary
As WWII drew to a close his style changed completely. He had begun to lose
interest in magazine photography, because a tidal wave of photographic
talent was moving into contention.
The poetic, art influenced approach to photography had excited him since his
days in Paris and he knew that many areas of the genre were unexplored. He
began to photograph nudes, portraits and landscapes.
Dissatisfied with the predictability of view provided by modern cameras,
Brandt sought an alternative. In a second-hand shop found one in a
70-year-old wooden Kodak with an ultra-wide lens and never looked back.
Exhibitions and books made him a little money. The price of his print sales
(now commanding four figure sums) barely covered the cost of the paper, but
more to the point he had become what had always been his destiny. He was an
Having taught himself how to use modern cameras in an unorthodox way, Brandt
discarded his old Kodak in 1961 and ploughed on in his lone furrow, ignoring
all conventions. The more of them he broke, the more his work was admired.
He once said, “A feeling for composition is a great asset. It is very much a
matter of instinct and although it may develop with time, it cannot be
Despite his best efforts to deny greatness, that is just what he found. What
he was not to know that by the end of the 20th century he would have
attained cult status (See
Ironically, as an artist with a camera, Brandt sought to retain some mystery
in his work, although seen through a glass darkly his mind and his craft