Between Dreaming and Action: The Portraiture of Bill Brandt

By: Kris Somerville | Missouri Review


One could argue that photography as an art form reveals the least about its creator. What’s being photographed already exists in the world; the photographer finds it, frames the image and presses the shutter. Whether wrong or right, this attitude suited Bill Brandt, a retiring, mysterious man who so successfully reinvented himself that toward the end of his life he was proclaimed Britain’s most renowned photographer. At the time, critics and collectors had no idea that he was German and hadn’t moved to London until his thirties.

Brandt also had a deep reluctance to talk shop. He wrote almost nothing about his own work. When he occasionally did speak about his photography, he used words such as “magic,” “fantasy,” “unknown,” and “bewilderment” to describe what happened between the moment of focusing the lens on a subject and taking the shot. Fortunately he had the eye of a poet, using light and perspective in ways that revealed his subjects as familiar yet strange. He often claimed that anyone could have taken his pictures. He was simply the one with the camera and the luck.

He was born Hermann Wilhelm Brandt in 1904 into the material comfort of an upper-middle- class German family; his father operated a successful shipping and banking business based in Hamburg. As a teenager, he suffered fragile health from tuberculosis, and he was sent to a sanitarium in Davos, Switzerland. During this time of forced inactivity, Brandt started watching movies, studying painting and playing around with his camera. He focused particularly on composition, lighting and atmosphere.

After his health stabilized, Brandt needed to decide what to do with his life. A therapist he had seen in Vienna while visiting his brother Rolf suggested he try photography. Brandt apprenticed himself at the Grete Kolliner studio, where he worked for nearly three years perfecting his darkroom techniques.

In the 1920s he went off to Paris to study with Man Ray. Years later, Brandt credited the surrealist photographer with broadening his skills. More importantly, Ray inspired in him a new excitement about photography and the world. Man Ray appreciated young Brandt’s darkroom expertisem but at the time didn’t think much of his photography. He would later reassess his opinion and credit Brandt with infusing English photography with elements of surrealism and the avant-garde.

Avoiding the stock identity of a ‘20s artist, Brandt shunned the frantic café society of Montparnasse in favor of exploring the less frequented, frayed margins of the city. He drifted around Europe, his private income from his parents freeing him from having to scrounge for work. Their support allowed him to work slowly and intentionally on his craft.

Brandt took his time breaking into the illustrated magazine market. Still, he was conscious of how much competition there was in Paris to get assignments. In London, the photographic scene had not yet taken off. The country was behind the continent in terms of art and photography. Brandt also wanted to find a place where he could turn himself into a new person. His brother Rolf recalled that “Billy” had always wanted to be English and belong to the “fairy-tale island” of his childhood fantasies. In 1934, he settled in London and made the city his permanent home. He selected as his professional name “Bill Brandt” and soon gave every appearance that he was a British-born gentleman.

With camera in hand, he took in the city with the sharpness of an outsider, producing two books that were careful studies of English life: The English at Home (1936) and A Night in London (1938). His photographs offered an inventory of British types—bobbies, tailors, homemakers, miners, chambermaids, schoolchildren, shopkeepers—and preserved the world of 1930s England that was disappearing forever.

While Brandt didn’t want to be pinned down to weekly assignments, he did produce quite a bit of work for Lilliput and Picture Posr and, later, Harper’s Bazaar. In fact, all his work in portraiture was commissioned by commercial magazines. He took these assignments seriously, wanting the photographs to be more than snapshots that only showed a likeness at a given moment. His images of Britain’s cultural, artistic and literary figures were meant to last.

When taking a portrait, Brandt said, “The photographer has to wait until something between dreaming and action occurs in the expression of the face.” He also believed that people were defined by the surroundings they had chosen for themselves; their landscapes were their spiritual homes. These backdrops conveyed essential qualities of their personalities. The photographs presented here show Brandt’s attention to a sitter’s face and setting, as well as to the unruly splendor of his compositions.

Bill Brandt died in 1983, leaving behind 5,000 or more pictures taken between 1927 and 1983. He had become something of an icon in Britain, although he seldom seemed to notice. He often felt that his pictures were too static and arty to be widely liked. In the end, photography, the career he had dreamed of as a child, was what mattered. It allowed him a safe but profound intimacy with the world that he might not have found otherwise.