One of the giants of 20th-century photography, Bill Brandt (1904–1983) is not as well-known as his close contemporaries Henri Cartier-Bresson and Walker Evans. This exemplary exhibition of his work, curated by MoMA’s Sarah Hermanson Meister, reappraises Brandt’s long career, one whose distinct, sometimes overlapping phases—marked by radical shifts in style, subject and printing techniques—are not easily reconciled. The show, which includes more than 150 photographs, has been divided into six sections, beginning with Brandt’s dark-toned studies of British society from the 1930s, and ending with his surrealistic nudes of the 1960s. Throughout, Hermanson Meister puts the focus on the unifying element in Brant’s varied oeuvre: his belief that the photographer’s job was to present the mundane as something “fresh and strange.”
In Brandt’s pictures, this preternaturalness comes largely from capturing events in the offing. In a photograph from 1938, for example, two impassive parlor maids in starched caps and aprons stand at attention by a fully set table surrounded by empty chairs. Drastically foreshortened nudes from the 1950s (taken with a wide-angle lens so that they seem, like Alice in Wonderland, to have outgrown the rooms they occupy) patiently rest or stare into space, apparently waiting for something to happen.
Even in Brandt’s most straightforward work, the ordinary can appear alien, as if seen for the first time by a curious, if dispassionate, outsider. And in fact, Brandt was born in Hamburg, Germany, and grew up in Europe, although he was reluctant to talk about his foreign background. He’s thought to have taken up photography as a teenager, while undergoing treatment for tuberculosis in a Swiss sanatorium in the 1920s. Arriving in Paris in 1930, he worked for a time as an assistant to Man Ray, whose surrealist images would serve as a lifelong influence.
Brandt finally settled in England in 1934, and set about documenting British society—in particular its rigid class hierarchies. These early photographs were collected in two books: The English at Home (1936), which juxtaposed scenes of hoi polloi at play with pictures of miners, workingmen and convicts; and A Night in London (1938), an homage to Brassaï’s 1936 classic, Paris by Night, which is replete with call girls and lonely policemen patrolling deserted streets. A few of these images are overtly surreal, such as one of a porter balancing an enormous fish on his head. For the most part, however, the photographs’ uncanniness is more subtle, as in a picture of a white bird stalking down a manicured green lawn at dusk.
A separate project involved a 1937 tour of Northern English industrial towns hit hard by the Depression. While not unsympathetic, the resulting images—of children scavenging in slag heaps for tiny scraps of usable coat, and exhausted, soot-stained miners—were made with the detached eye of an artist. Brandt would later maintain that the images were never intended to be political, saying, “I was probably inspired to take these pictures because the social contrast of the ’30s was visually very exciting for me.” And this seems to be the case, especially when you compare Brandt’s photo of the abundantly fenestrated mansions of London’s Park Lane with his image of mining-town row houses with their windowless backs to the street.
By the end of the 1930s, Brandt was receiving magazine commissions for pictures of England at war. His trademark dark grays and inky blacks were perfectly suited to scenes of blacked-out London by moonlight, and of people taking shelter in tube stations during the Blitz. With peacetime came portrait assignments for publications such as Harper’s Bazaar, the earliest of which are gloomy and unexciting. In the 1960s, however, the portraits began to change. Brandt—who had until then mostly used a Rolleiflex camera on a tripodÑacquired a Hasselblad with a superwide-angle lens. He also started to print his pictures in high contrast. Suddenly, the sense of strangeness was back. Images of the playwright Harold Pinter, with Battersea behind him, and of the painter Francis Bacon, walking on Primrose Hill, look instantly groovy, as if they came from an album cover or a poster for an art film.
A 1960s series on artists’ eyes—which looked more like they belonged to lizards or elephants than human subjects—paved the way for Brandt’s last, and most enduring, works: his extreme close-ups of women lying on pebbly beaches in France and England. In these images, isolated, goose-pimpled body parts—buttocks, knees, elbows, hands, feet, ears—are transformed into bleached-out sculptural forms that loom in the foreground of rocky landscapes. In the end, Brandt found his great subject not in England, or Englishness, but rather in the familiarity and mystery of the anonymous, dislocated figure.—Anne Doran