Nigel Warburton reviews Bill Brandt: Shadow and Light by Sarah Hermanson Meister
Two parlour maids in starched uniform by a dinner table, huddled masses of sleepers in Liverpool Street underground station sheltering from the Blitz, a steep cobbled alleyway in Halifax, Francis Bacon staring beyond the frame as he walks down Primrose Hill, a wind-swept Top Withens in Yorkshire, a distorted nude on a beach – Bill Brandt’s most famous images are hauntingly familiar. Brandt was the towering figure of 20th Century British photography, and rightly so. For fifty years he dominated the genres of social documentary, portrait, landscape, and the nude. In his 1966 retrospective summary of his career in book form, Shadow of Light, he presented 35 years of photography from his early street scenes in Paris and London through to his Henry Moore-like nudes, taken with a wide lens camera which, as he put it, could see like a fish or a fly. Brandt was no purist: he more than once declared that photography was not a sport and absolutely anything was allowed. For him that included posing friends and relatives as East Enders for photo-fictions that most have taken to be documents of the working classes, flipping negatives, adding and subtracting details in the darkroom, and retouching prints with pencil and pen. His use of captions was not reliable: several of his famous photographs ‘of’ London in the blackout, for example, are, on closer inspection, darkroom re-workings of pre-war negatives. Brandt’s photographic sensibility was formed in the late 1920s in the golden age of surrealism (he was even Man Ray’s studio assistant in Paris for a few months), and, although at times worked under the guise of a photojournalist, his images were rarely straightforward records of what was in front of his camera. He was drawn to photograph those surrealist favourites statues and mannequins, and had more in common with de Chirico and Bunuel than with Cartier-Bresson. Nor did he have the collector’s fetish for the vintage print, a print made by the photographer at the time the photograph was originally taken: instead he repeatedly reinterpreted his old negatives throughout his career, sometimes transforming them by exclusion of detail and by additions from other negatives.
By the time he had established himself as a photographic artist in London in the late 1960s, Brandt was printing the key works from his backlist in a harsh black/white style that was distinctively his own, recycling selected magazine images made under commission in the 1930s and 40s for Weekly Illustrated, Lilliput and Picture Post, in a form that justified their presence in art museums. The famous image of a steep cobbled Halifax alleyway, a ‘snicket’, for example, although originally part of an 8-image set made for Lilliput magazine in 1948 ‘Hail, Hell and Halifax’, was subsequently reprinting in at least two further variants, one of which blacks out all the windows of the building next to the snicket and includes smoke that doesn’t appear in other prints. Starker prints such as this one were made for exhibition in galleries in the 1970s. Brandt’s’ reputation, though, does not just rest on museum collections and exhibitions: he is at least as well-known through his books, and was in his lifetime, particularly The English at Home (1936), A Night in London (1938), and Perspective of Nudes (1961), all of which have become highly collectible. Copies of A Night in London now change hands for thousands of pounds, and not just because of its scarcity (allegedly the result of an incendiary bomb wiping out unsold stock): this book, beautifully printed using the photogravure process, is a significant part of photographic history.
In Shadow and Light (the book under review – not to be confused with Brandt’s own Shadow of Light or Stephen Dwoskin’s film about Brandt ‘Shadows from Light’), Sarah Hermanson Meister, a curator at the New York Museum of Modern Art, seeks to give a fresh assessment of Brandt’s work in all its ‘unruly splendour’. This is no easy task. Few photographers have been as thoroughly researched as Brandt. Throughout a long career he gave numerous interviews, most of them variants on a simple, somewhat deceptive script, which included the diversionary claim that he had been born in England, when in fact he had been born in Hamburg. Mark Haworth Booth, former curator of photography at the Victoria and Albert Museum and David Mellor, however, conducted long and detailed interviews with Brandt that delved deeply into his biography and motivations, and they published their summation in a detailed critical study Bill Brandt Behind the Camera. A major retrospective exhibition at the Barbican Gallery, curated by Ian Jeffrey in 1993 allowed a reassessment of every phase of the photographer’s career based on extensive examination of the archives, and Paul Delaney interviewed many of Brandt’s relatives and acquaintances for his 2004 biography. Any serious Brandt scholar has spent many a happy hour tracing credited and uncredited Brandt photographs in magazines such as Picture Post and Lilliput, following up Brandt’s own 1948 declaration:
I hardly ever take photographs except on an assignment. It is not that I do not get pleasure from the actual taking of photographs, but rather that the necessity of fulfilling a contract – the sheer having to do a job – supplies an incentive, without which the taking of photographs just for fun seems to leave the fun rather flat. (from Camera in London, 1948, p.17)
Hermanson Meister’s introduction to the book provides is a clear chronological analysis of Brandt and his context, written with a light touch, but the claims to originality and novelty are hyperbolic, no doubt driven by the demands of the museum and publishing systems.
There are two aspects to a photographic book such as this: the images and the text.
Here, we are told, the illustrations present ‘a coherent development of Brandt’s career represented by the finest known vintage prints’ (p.27) In other words, the images have been chosen to reflect the date of their printing, wherever that has been possible. Yet, setting aside the question of whether such an approach is appropriate for a photographer such as Brandt who produced interesting variants of early work in later life (or even possible, given conflicting dates and lack of documentation for many Brandt prints), Herman Meister has had to work against the constraints of her medium. As with most photographic books, the printing of the book has tended to homogenize appearances so there is very little sense that we are looking at a series of images of prints made over the course of fifty years. Apart from any other consideration, Brandt’s prints come in different sizes, so reproducing them all in the same scale distorts their interpretation; a further difficulty is that many so-called vintage prints made by Brandt were expressly made for reproduction in magazines rather than as exhibition prints – crude retouching would be invisible in a Picture Post version of such a print, but would appear as a highly visible addition if the same print were put on the wall in an art gallery. But these are minor quibbles. The most important point is that photography is such a transparent medium that it is very difficult to see a photograph of a photograph as anything other than a photograph of the original photograph’s subject matter: a photograph of a photographic print of Francis Bacon still looks just like a portrait of Francis Bacon. Without drawing attention to material features of a print, such as its frame or surface, representing a specific print photographically is a difficult task, and a questionable aim for all but the most academic of photographic books. It is particularly difficult in monochrome. This isn’t the only problem with this approach. In some cases the reproductions here are less sharp and far muddier than images that appeared in Brandt’s early books, a likely product of digital technology, I suspect, rather than of his vintage prints being poor specimens from a great photographer: this further thwarts the scholarly aims, and visually contradicts claims about the comparative subtlety of early prints that are made in the text. To achieve the expressed aim of documenting Brandt’s changing printing styles, Herman Meister would have required facsimiles, not the compromises of modern photographic book printing for the mass market. Those who have no access to original Brandt prints will learn little about Brandt’s printing styles from the visual evidence of this book; those whose only access to Brandt’s work is through this book will get an impoverished sense of his achievement as a photographer.
Hermanson Meister’s introduction is supplemented by a technical examination of Brandt’s retouching techniques, presumably for the benefit of collectors and museum curators who will scarcely believe the crudity of many additions to Brandt prints, some of them simply scrawled on to the prints with a felt pen. More interesting, though, is a section on Brandt’s photographic stories published in the war years 1939-45 (reproduced accurately, but at far too small a scale to serve as anything but reminders). The relationship between magazine commissions and Brandt’s artistic portfolio is a fascinating aspect of his evolution as a photographer. The full implications of his cavalier approach to apparently documentary photography, however, have not been followed through. For example, ‘Blackout in London’ a series of 8 images published in Lilliput in 1939 is reproduced in thumbnail here, but the editors have failed to notice that as many as three of these (those taken in Shad Thames, Mayfair and Westminster - details here) are recycled pre-war images with the lights blacked out in the darkroom. These pictures, described here ‘as some of Brandt’s most iconic photographs’ had already appeared in The English at Home (1936) and a Night in London (1938). As with so much in Brandt’s output, truth to appearances was more important than literal truth.