Words - 20th Century Greats - Bill Brandt

20th Century Greats series (2000)

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 ‘analysis’.

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 editors.

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 hallmark.

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 artist-photographer.

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 learned”.

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 www.billbrandt.com).

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 have triumphed.

© Copyright John Chillingworth