LONDON — Bill Brandt didn’t discriminate: He was as comfortable training his lens on miners washing themselves after work in coal-stained water as he was snapping parlor maids running pre-dinner baths for their mistresses. He photographed everything from a cocktail hour in a lush country garden to a circus boy drinking tea by a tent.
“Bill Brandt: A Centenary Retrospective,” which opened last month at the Victoria and Albert Museum here and runs until July 25, showcases 155 mainly vintage, gelatin silver prints from the photographer’s archive. A complementary show at the National Portrait Gallery also celebrates the centennial of Brandt’s birth in Hamburg in 1904 and runs until Aug. 30, focussing on the photographer’s portraits. (Brandt, who studied photography in Vienna and worked for Man Ray in Paris, died in 1983.)
“These are the essential works of an essential photographer,” explains Mark Haworth-Booth, the senior curator for photographs at the V&A, which has been collecting Brandt’s work since 1964. “He used to sell prints for five pounds a piece. I think Bill was quite pleased to make some money and cover his costs.”
Unlike his contemporary and friend Cecil Beaton, Brandt didn’t really shine in the fashion world. “[Former Harper’s Bazaar editor] Carmel Snow loved him and used him in the Forties and Fifties, but the fashion photography was never on the same level as his other work,” Haworth-Booth adds.
That work includes black-and-white shots that are reminiscent of Caravaggio paintings with a stark contrast between dark and light. There are also photos that portray a bleak WWII-era London: Hundreds of people sleeping on the platform of the Elephant and Castle tube station during the Blitz and the city’s deserted streets during the blackouts. In a taped interview that is part of the exhibition, Brandt says it was so black those nights that his exposures would sometimes last 20 minutes.
Even his celebrity portraits are dark. In a photo of E.M. Forster in his office at Oxford, it is difficult to make out the writer; a portrait of a distracted Francis Bacon is posed near an eerie gas lamp; another examines the wrinkled, elephant-hide-like eyes of Georges Braque. Some subjects, however, were eager for levity. “Picasso just couldn’t look serious,” Brandt explains in the interview. But in Brandt’s portrait, the artist appears stern-jawed.
— Samantha Conti