Philosophy: the Basics course - Tuesday evenings 29th April - 3rd June
A six-session introduction to Philosophy led by Nigel Warburton, author of A Little History of Philosophy, Philosophy: the Basics, Thinking from A to Z, Philosophy: the Classics, Free Speech: A Very Short Introduction, The Art Question etc., and interviewer for the Philosophy Bites podcast series.
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.
For the 4th session of Playing with Meaning we re-visited the Paul Klee exhibition at Tate Modern, exploring the possibility of describing the works entirely in musical terms. Klee was himself a talented violinist, and his parents and wife were all musicians. The poet Rainer Maria Rilke even wrote this of him:
Even if you hadn’t told me he plays the violin, I would have guessed that on many occasions his drawings were transcriptions of music."
So the idea that music was an influence on Klee, in various ways, has historical backing. The point of the excercise was in part to explore the idea of aspect seeing - the notion that the same physical object can be seen in very different ways depending on our mental set. Ludwig Wittgenstein famously used the Duck-Rabbit picture to illustrate this (for illustrations of duck-rabbits see 9 examples of the duck-rabbit, also this article about the claim to have found the oldest pictorial illusion). Wittgenstein's discussion is in Part ll of Philosophical Investigations. The sudden awareness of the previously unseen animal in the picture is an example of what Wittgenstein calls ‘the dawning of an aspect’. The visual stimulus doesn’t change. The retinal image that we have is presumably also unchanged. Yet we suddenly see what we thought was just a duck as a rabbit. This example emphasises the degree to which seeing is linked with expectation and concepts and is far from the passive reception of incoming visual data that some early empiricists believed it to be (Hans-Johann Glock in his A Wittgenstein Dictionary p.37 calls this ‘concept-saturatedness of perception’).
The exercise worked well, and resulted in different sorts of attention - we found visual analogues for rhythm, tone, scales, accent, key, echo, modulation, musical genre, and much more in Klee's work, and generally we spent more time discussing non-representational aspects of pictures than we might otherwise have done. It was also fun.
Philosophy in a Day is a combination of lectures and discussion designed to introduce some key philosophical ideas and is ideal for those with little or no prior knowledge of the subject.
The day will be led by Nigel Warburton, author of A Little History of Philosophy and Philosophy: the Basics, and interviewer for the popular podcast series Philosophy Bites (which has had over 19 million downloads).
Julian Baggini, author of The Pig that Wants to Be Eaten, and The Ego Trick, and frequent contributor to BBC Radio 4, The Guardian, etc. will be giving a guest lecture in the afternoon.
For session three of Playing with Meaning we further explored some of Arthur Danto's ideas about what art is. In particular we considered his notion that art is about something - contrasting this aspect of his account with George Dickie's Institutional Theory of Art which, in its simplest form stated that a work of art is an artifact some aspects of which have had the status 'candidate for appreciation' conferred upon it. Danto's approach is often confused with Dickie's, but he always distanced himself from the way Dickie approached this question. Dickie was only interested in the term 'art' used in a purely descriptive way (i.e. without implying any evaluation whatsover). Unlike Danto, he had no stipulation that a work of art needed to have a subject whatsoever.
In the Tate Modern galleries we discussed several works which quite clearly had subject matter. For example, Hrair Sarkissian's 'Execution Squares' 2008, described here, large scale photographs of empty squares in Syria where executions have taken place, clearly are about something. Interestingly, despite being photgraphs, the subject matter is as much what is not in front of the lens, as it is what actually is there. We discussed these images as examples of the way in which, as Jean-Paul Sartre noticed, our consciousness of things isn't straightforwardly of what we see - in Sartre's example he goes to a café to meet Pierre, but Pierre isn't there - his entire experience of the café is of absence, of concrete nothingness.... We interpret what these photographs are about in the light of context, knowledge, and appearance. The subject matter of the photograph is not what was in front of the lens when the shutter fell, but rather a contribution of the photographer who used the images to explore a viewpoint on a theme.
You might be interested in this discussion of Thomas Demand's work which picks up on this notion of photgraphs which are about what is not present (though with a further layer of complication in relation to Demand, since what he photographs are carefully constructed trompe l'oeil paper models of reality)
In the room Identity Politics, we looked and at and thought about a range of works, many of which had overt political meanings that we were clearly meant to discern. Others were more open to multiple interpretations. (Frustratingly the Tate Modern website doesn't list any information about the works it is unable to illustrate for copyright reasons, so I can't link to anything useful from that site).