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Bill Brandt

Text from Bill Brandt: Behind the Camera

PORTRAITS

Although Bill Brandt's career began, decisively, with his close-up portrait of Ezra Pound in 1928, his subject in the 30's was the social portrait and the urban setting. An exception is a dramatic head of his brother Rolf, lit in the style of expressionist cinema, from the mid-30's. Brandt's portraiture flowered in the 40's. Its hallmarks are seriousness, reticence and, despite some spectacular exceptions, a circumambience perhaps best described In the words of Elizabeth Bowen: "a tense bright dusk." Brandt portrayed artists and thinkers thoughtfully and in isolation. He rarely photographed politicians or businessmen. It is possible that as a young man in Vienna he may have known something of the activities of the art historian Heinrich Schwarz (of the Képferstich Kabinett), who was then in the midst of his exciting rediscovery of the calotypes of Hill and Adamson from the 1840's. The appearance of Brandt's photograph of Caledonian Market (1929) in the pages of Das Deutches Lichtbild in 1932 coincided with the publication in the same volume of an article by the Austrian art photographer Heinrich Kuhn titled "The Photographic Mastery of Extreme Light and Shade." Kuhn argued for manipulation of chiaroscuro in the interests of expression. The human eye, he wrote, is constructed in such a way that "high lights always become blended with shadows and . . . the action of the iris and other physiological processes cooperate to bring extreme contrasts closer together." Such physiological processes must be understood by "real photographers, who know how to portray atmosphere and mood convincingly and who have a message to deliver to the soul of man." Kuhn opposed a photography which offered merely mechanical renderings of tone gradations. He celebrated instead the achievements of David Octavius Hill, whose "powerful expressionism of the Talbotype/Calotype . . . led him to the decisively characteristic outline of draughtsmanship." Brandt contrived, in his portrait of E.M. Forster (1947), something of the shadowed luxuriance of calotype and later wrote of his intentions in Camera in London (1948):
When photographing a writer, I was forcibly impressed by the Victorian character of the room in which he sat. A hard print brought out this impression. Details were lost as they were in early Victorian photographs. My print did not imitate those old photographs; the methods of printing simply formed a link of association between the two, adding its reminiscent effect to the Victorian setting.
In this period Brandt consistently used the Rolleiflex camera which emerged on the photographic scene along with Brandt in 1928. The camera's ground-glass provided a clear view of the subject and the 2 1/4 x 2 1/4-inch negative gave Brandt the latitude he required for darkroom work. Brandt intensified or lightened his prints, cropped and retouched - sometimes drastically - and experimented tirelessly to achieve the veiled chiaroscuro tones typical of his photographs at this time. His serious portraiture began with a feature for Lilliput in December 1941. "Young Poets of Democracy," with text by Stephen Spender, presented Brandt's new portraits of Spender, C. Day Lewis, Dylan Thomas, Louis MacNeice, Alun Lewis, Anne Ridler, Laurie Lee and William Empson - representatives of both the Auden Generation and the poets in reaction to them, whom Cyril Connolly named the "new romantics." Brandt and his wife Eva, who published a remarkable novel called The Mermaids in 1956, regularly read John Lehmann's New Writing. Tom Hopkinson kept them in touch with interesting developments elsewhere, notably in Horizon where his own Stories were achieving acclaim. Composers were photographed in 1946 and visual artists in 1948. In November 1949, Lilliput published "A Gallery of Literary Artists": E.M. Forster, Norman Douglas, Ivy Compton-Burnett, Robert Graves, Edith and Osbert Sitwell, Elizabeth Bowen, Evelyn Waugh and Graham Greene. Brandt's portrait series for Lilliput closed in November 1949 with "The Box Office Boys" - the theatre producers of London's West End. This was an unlikely subject for him but times were changing. This phase of his portraiture came suddenly to an end when, in October 1949, Tom Hopkinson was forced out of the editorship of Picture Post. Many years later Sir Tom Hopkinson, as he became, speaking of the photojournalist Donald McCullin, said that a photographer of this caliber was akin to a thoroughbred racehorse and should be handled with great sensitivity by the responsible editor. As Bill Brandt's editor, Hopkinson always used another "thoroughbred" with discernment. At American Harper's Bazaar, the editor Carmel Snow gave Brandt similar encouragement and support in the later 40's and into the 50's. Brandt's early portraiture omits one individual, not exactly a writer and not usually described as a visual artist, whose oeuvre seems to have some say in the amply shadowed apartments in which we find so many of Brandt's sitters. In 1982 the present writer noted the omission in conversation with Bill Brandt: "Ah, Hitchcock, I would love to have photographed him. It could never be arranged. I had even chosen the exact spot. It was to have been at Charing Cross Underground Station. There is an amazingly long empty corridor that looks as if it goes right under the river. That is where I wanted to photograph him."

A second and distinct period of portrait photography began in the late 50's. Brandt's later portrait interpretations are expressed through the use of the Superwide Hasselblad. The 90 degree angle of the lens was exactly right for Brandt's portrait interiors. For outdoor pictures it allowed Brandt to calculate the composition of his three-quarter length study of Francis Bacon and to include the sweeping lamp-lit perspective of Primrose Hill in Camden Town, London. The high-energy vanishing lines and the high-contrast printing style Brandt then adopted gave the later portraits an abrasive edge dissimilar to the earlier portraits and highly typical of the 60's. Brandt continued to take portrait assignments until 1981 and in that year added a final series to the pantheon of the creative individuals he particularly admired.


 


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