Bill Brandt A Life by Paul Delany

Bill Brandt, his new biographer Paul Delany proposes, "is surely the greatest of British photographers".

Kevin Jackson Sunday Times Magazine March 2003


This is a fairly steep claim, when you consider the number and quality of competitors for that title. A very, very short list would run from William Henry Fox Talbot, Julia Margaret Cameron and Roger Fenton; via Peter Henry Emerson, Samuel Butler and Eadweard Muybridge; to Cecil Beaton, Bert Hardy and John Deakin . . . let alone to the legions of those who are still alive and snapping, from Don McCullin and David Hockney to Jane Bown, Tom Stoddart and their juniors. For a country that is often accused of being deficient in visual sensibilities, we seem to have turned out a remarkably abundant crop of first-rate photographers.

Delany's claim looks all the more precarious if you bear in mind that Brandt (1904-83), who in later life (after decades of trying to pass as an English gentleman) would virtually explode with rage if anyone mentioned the fact, was a German, well into adulthood when he finally settled in London. He was born into a wealthy Hamburg family of Lutheran bankers and traders, of the kind portrayed by Thomas Mann. After giving due weight to all these qualifications, though, it is still hard to deny the probability that Delany is right. If we can respect the claims of those who say that Handel is the greatest British composer and Wittgenstein the greatest British philosopher, then it does indeed make a lot of sense to say that the man christened Hermann Wilhelm Brandt was — is — the greatest British photographer.

At the very least, we can agree that, since about 1960, when critics began to take him up in a big way, educated opinion has always tended to award Brandt those supreme laurels. Even his near-contemporary Cecil Beaton, who once called Brandt "the Samuel Beckett of photography" (not entirely a compliment, one suspects, though it was a shrewd hit), eventually deferred to his sometime rival and generously acknowledged Brandt's superiority. "Bill Brandt" remains the one British name you can flourish in nationalistic arguments about photographic merit anywhere in the world and be confident of a deferential response.

So what elements go to make up his acknowledged greatness? That can be as hard to define as his images are generally easy to identify. It is certainly not a question of originality, since Brandt was a hungry and unabashed sucker-up of influences, from German expresionist cinema and the early Parisian surrealists (he served a brief apprenticeship with Man Ray) to Gregg Toland's ravishing deep- focus cinematography on Citizen Kane. Like a good Scout, he adopted, adapted and improved techniques; he seldom invented.

For a country that is often accused of being deficient in visual sensibilities, we seem to have turned out a remarkably abundant crop of first-rate photographers.

In fact, Brandt was in many ways an extremely old-fashioned practitioner, above all in his penchant for painterly compositions and direct quotations from earlier art works. His nude studies of the later 1940s, which include some of his most startling and personal work, can be traced back to specific originals: an illustration by Balthus for Wuthering Heights, Millais's The Woodman's Daughter (this at a time when the Pre-Raphaelites were derided by most British critics) and an Ingres.

He was, it almost goes without saying, a highly accomplished technician, and one for whom the work in the darkroom was more interesting than the moment of pressing the shutter release. As Delany persuasively shows, Brandt would worry away at reprinting his key images over the decades like a poet anxiously revising new editions, and would often change their emotional content dramatically — on the whole, the pictures become blacker as the years go by. (So did Brandt's mood, although Delany bravely resists any facile reading of this growing fondness for prints of darkness.) But technique devoid of vision can be a slick and heartless thing; fortunately, Brandt had vision to spare. Any competent photography student could knock you out a Brandt pastiche in a couple of hours — forced perspectives, sharp contrast, lashings of murk. The perpetually elusive quality, the heart of the matter, is his ability to make the familiar look like nothing else on earth — sometimes weird, perhaps, but always weirdly beautiful.

Unlike many photographers, he did not plough a single furrow but excelled in at least four areas: social reportage, landscape, portraiture and the female nude (although not usually at the same time; each of these areas tends to dominate a long phase of his career). It was his reportage — visions of the inordinately rich and the wretchedly poor in the 1930s — that first won him the acclaim of certain leftist critics, who later turned against him when they realised that the former were not nearly so satirical as they looked and the latter not so angry. Simply, Brandt loved his adopted nation and had no great desire to change it in the smallest way.

In Delany, he has found a fine biographer: well informed in photographic and political history, a lucid prose stylist, neither too philistine nor too gullible when it comes to the Freudian readings that Brandt's work attracts as honey-pots attract bears. The life Delany sketches was, by the standards of the 20th century, not excessively painful: Brandt always had the safety net of a small private income, never had to drudge for pennies, married three interesting and beautiful wives, won international acclaim well before his death. But there were troubles enough: his adult life began with severe TB, ended with severe diabetes and was plagued by paranoia and other kinds of mental distress.

The publisher has also done Brandt proud: most of the reproductions get a full page, and are printed on good-quality glossy paper (a lot of his work first came before the public on cheap matt paper, which reduced much of his carefully graded shadows to mud) that shows off the delicacy of his tones handsomely. True, £35 is a hefty slice of disposable income, but in this case at least you can see where the money has gone, and there are some images here that anyone who cares for the art will want on their shelves for keeps: Coal Searcher Going Home to Jarrow, for instance, a photo as powerful as it is politically ambiguous.

By the time I finished this excellent book, I was inclined to trump Beaton's remark about Beckett and propose a few haunting similarities between Brandt and T S Eliot. Both made attempts to become more English than the English, though Brandt's attempt was doomed by his inability to shed his German accent. Both were inclined to timidity and to reckless daring. Both were, at times, acclaimed by the left, but were inclined to conservatism — in his later years, Brandt took The Daily Telegraph and was a warm supporter of Mrs Thatcher. Both men were afflicted by sexual morbidity, which became manifest either in coded or startling, overt ways. Both had their personal demons, but grappled with them and made them sing; you could, perhaps, call them both neurotic artists, but in the long run the neurosis matters far less than the art