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By Alan Behr

NEW YORK, 18 JULY 2013 — If Susan Sontag was right that photography flourishes in warrior cultures, Britain should have contributed to photography in parallel to its remarkable contributions to world literature. That it has not yet done so, and that the art of Britain still emerges most profoundly from the QWERTY keyboard, rather than the lens, remains a question of culture rather than aesthetics. The British have the English language, one that, with a pool of about a quarter million words, can express every nuance of the human experience — even if it means, on occasion, reaching for a loan word such as nuance.

When you live on an island, you learn to be particularly aware of the presence of others and to avoid wearing your heart on your sleeve. A result, that famous British reserve, is why it is hard to take an interesting picture of Londoners — and why it is hard to do so in Tokyo either, even though the Japanese are not exactly culturally unaware of the importance of photography.

There are exceptions to all generalizations, of course. Manhattan, a small island, has possibly been the subject of more great photographs than any swath of earth of comparable size (Paris being nearly twice as large), and Britain has produced many fine photographers, with styles as varied as those given fame by David Bailey and Cecil Beaton. What makes the body of work of Bill Brandt transcendent among his British contemporaries is how he managed, with so many disparate subjects, to get behind what he was shooting — to reveal, in the moments he made his exposures, those universal truths about the human experience that shine from masterpieces in all the arts.


Bill Brandt: Northumbrian Miner at his Evening Meal, 1937 
Courtesy of the Museum of Modern Art
John Parkinson III Found
© 2012 Bill Brandt Archive Ltd

As is made clear in the retrospective Bill Brandt: Shadow and Light, now on view at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, Brandt did it in his own, carefully crafted way. The exhibition is divided into six numbered galleries, each exploring a key theme in the photographer’s work, but that is for curatorial convenience. What emerges is a compelling unity, one that holds together whether the subject is pure portraiture or nudes made with such severe abstraction that it can be hard to tell what body parts are in view.  If there is a word to give name to that unifying feature of Brandt’s vision, it is solidity.

During the period that Brandt was active, many Continental photographers sought to capture what Henri Cartier-Bresson famously called “the decisive moment” — that instant in which all that swirls in front of the photographer falls into balance. Click the shutter a moment too soon, and the image fails, but wait a mere fraction of a second too long, and all will be lost.  The works that emerged were dynamic — the decisive moment was captured because there frequently was movement up to the moment and then, once it passed, all simply moved away. The boy carrying the Champagne bottles in Cartier-Bresson’s Rue Mouffetard, Paris (1954) has bounced into view, and he is going to keep bouncing along, carrying his treasure home. You see it again in the work of the Hungarian-born photographer André Kertész and in the Swiss-born Robert Frank: life comes and goes before the photographer, whose job is to pull form and meaning from all that naturally arising clutter.  Although recumbent upon a sofa, Kertész’s satiric dancer looks ready to dance, if only scissor the air with her feet; even the potted flower in his image of Mondrian’s house seems about to go somewhere, if only to droop. The politicians, cowboys and diner waitresses of Robert Frank’s The Americans will all be moving on shortly.

Working at the same time, American-born masters, often using bigger, less mobile equipment than the Leicas and Contaxes favored by the Europeans, evoked mass and solidity. It was not merely the mountains of Ansel Adams or the peppers and seashells of Edward Weston.  Even people seemed grounded, almost part of the landscape, whether it was Weston himself, in a portrait Adams made of him sitting on the trunk of a tree, or the nude Charis Wilson as seen by Weston in many memorable photographs. Much has been made about how Adams, Weston and the other members of Group f/64, a school of photographers based in Northern California, shunned the Impressionistic Pictorialist style then in vogue in favor of creating clear, strong images — a form of photography that proudly announced that the image the camera produced was profoundly different than that created by brush or palette knife.  That was old news by the time Brandt had hit his stride.  What mattered by then was the differences in the way that he and the f/64 photographers represented in two dimensions the feeling of both mass and mobility from what was then happening among Continental photographers.

Bill Brandt: Seaford, East Sussex Coast, 1957
Courtesy of the Museum of Modern Art
Gift of David Dechman and Michel Mercure
© 2012 Bill Brandt Archive Ltd

If only because of Brandt, the naturalistic but frequently monumental style of photography of Adams and Weston should perhaps be called Anglo-American.  The subjects of Brandt’s portraits on view at MoMA, from Robert Graves (1941) to Tom Stoppard (1978), evoke profundity, majesty and no small amount of mystery precisely because they look rooted: they are not going anywhere any time soon, and it is up to the viewer to contemplate what is happening within these tableaux vivant.  You can imagine, although it cannot be true, that the subjects sat for their photographed portraits as long as they would have had to do for a painter.

In what is perhaps Brandt’s most famous portrait, Francis Bacon Walking on Primrose Hill, London (1963), Bacon looks frozen in thought, unwilling to take another step on his walk. In Coal-Searcher Going Home to Jarrow (1937), a man pushing his bicycle along a desolate road, fresh from scavenging lumps of coal, hunches over his handlebars, his eyes invisible.  By the sense of weight he projects and by the sharpness in the rendering of the front bicycle tire, betraying no sense of motion, you can image that, where you to visit the spot today, this coal-bearing Sisyphus will still be there, never reaching his destination.  Indeed, even the grass in Brandt’s landscapes seems to have hardened in place.

As for Brandt’s distorted nudes: those expanses of flesh look like rocks that have been smoothed over time, as much a part of the scenery as the pebbles on the beaches on which they rest or the chairs in the staid interiors they populate.  Contemporaneously with the MoMA show, over 140 of those works have been assembled for Brandt Nudes (Thames & Hudson, 176 pages), the first new monograph of the series to appear in over three decades.  With never more than one image per page, and with breathing space given by the careful interpolation of blank pages, the book is done in a way that is both classic and contemporary.  It is classic because it displays, through the use of the technology of our time, that special, old-fashioned care that needs to be given to black and white photographs when printing them in book form.  (It is all too easy for the complex tonalities of original gelatin silver prints to get lost in missteps taken from galleys to printing press.) The book is contemporary by an absence of all but minimal but engaging explanatory text.  It is of no matter whether that is due to respect for the images or budget constraints; if the models in some erotic nudes and fashion photographs look as if imperiled by a chance cold breeze, the greatest danger to Brandt’ twisting, bulging and severely cut-off figures has always come from the art-speak of interpretation.

Bill Brandt: Nude, London, 1951
Thames & Hudson
© The Bill Brandt Archive.

It would be a pity to slip away from that good example here. Suffice it to say, therefore, that Brandt rarely adhered to the postulate of his countryman, the art historian Kenneth Clark, that the Western nude is an expression of “ideal form.” Those of Brandt’s women with their faces in view look too serious, pensive or just plain tired for an Aphrodite moment. There is also none of that cheesy self-conscious allure (“Boobs out girls, the photographer is here.”) of so much contemporary nude photography. These bodies are physical and emotional obstacle courses, daring you to look long enough to find meaning.  Even if you do not, you feel enriched for having tried.  And you may well never look at nude photography in quite the same way.

It is important to keep in mind that Brandt worked as a media photographer, which in his day meant he shot pictures and picture stories for illustrated magazines. As with the other important magazine photographers of his day, it is virtually impossible to distinguish his photographs intended as an expression of his personal vision (that is, fine art) from those made as mere illustration.  That is an indication of greatness in the eye of the master—even as it is perhaps also testament to the medium’s Achilles’ heel, which is its unrelenting literalness.

There is no better way to appreciate whether an artist has withstood the judgmental effects of time than to visit a retrospective or, failing that, to see his works collected in a monograph.  The importance of Brandt’s contributions to photography shines through at MoMA, for the clarity of his vision, which was a through line to his work even as his style evolved; for his technique, which was consistently excellent; and most of all, for his self-confidence. A good photograph reveals its subject, not the photographer; if a photograph works, we do not need a catalogue of its maker’s frustrations and self-doubts, but we can, perhaps, speculate on the certainty of his convictions, based on what we see.  What you feel in these images is the hand of an artist who never doubted his vision and who knew at all times what he hoped you would take away from your contact with his art.

Bill Brandt: Shadow and Light
Through 12 August 2013
The Museum of Modern Art
11 West 53 Street,
between Fifth and Sixth avenues
New York, NY 10019
Tel: (1) (1) 212 708 94 00

Bill Brandt: Shadow and Light
By Sarah Hermanson Meister

Lee Daffner (Contributor)
Hardcover: 208 pages
The Museum of Modern Art, New York (March 2013)
ISBN-10: 0870708457

Brandt Nudes: A New Perspective
Lawrence Durrell (Preface)
Mark Haworth-Booth (Commentary)

Hardcover: 176 pages
Thames & Hudson; 1st edition (April 2013)
ISBN-10: 0500970424

Headline image: Bill Brandt: Jean Dubuffet, 1960
Courtesy of the Museum of Modern Art
John III Fund
© 2012 Bill Brandt Archive Ltd

An attorney based in New York, Alan Behr writes on photography for Culturekiosque. He has contributed images to the summer exhibition currently on view at Leica Gallery in New York.