The Social Legacy of Bill Brandt

To complement the exhibition “Toppers and Cloth Caps: The Social Divide according to Bill Brandt”, The Special Photographers Gallery invited Francis Hodgson, the curator of the exhibition and a noted photographic writer, critic and historian to talk with the photographer Geraint Cunnick about his own personal interpretation of Brandt’s images and his contribution to the history of photography and the social history of Britain.

By Francis Hodgson and Geraint Cunnick, October 23, 2000


The following exclusive interview, fuelled by Hodgson’s longstanding admiration of Brandt, is a fascinating and compelling overview of their conversation on the 23rd October 2000.

Bill Brandt (1904–1983) was one of the Twentieth Century’s greatest photographers producing a body of photographic works that range from stark realism and social comment to pure abstraction and surrealism. Born in Hamburg to an English father, Brandt served as an apprentice to Man Ray before working independently in Paris, sharing the city’s creative energy with other notable lensmen such as Brassai and Kertesz.

 Bill Brandt
Parlourmaid and Underparlourmaid Ready to Serve Dinner

Brandt settled in England in 1931, his attention utterly focused on the project ‘The English at Home’ – a cool, foreign look at his adopted home that resulted in many of his most famous early images and underlined a commitment to both social commentary and a certain photographic stylisation. His career through the 1930s and 1940s ran parallel with the emergence of the great photographic magazines such as Picture Post and Lilliput which afforded Brandt the opportunity to produce important, ground-breaking photographic essays, the most notable being images from the industrial and coal-mining areas of Northern England. Later in his career, Brandt’s attention turned to the landscape and its natural form: both in terms of pictorial qualities, in the book “Literary Britain”, and as an abstracted metaphor in the extended series of nude studies which combined and contrasted aspects of the landscape and the female form in a justly celebrated body of images.

Geraint Cunnick: Where do we begin with Bill Brandt?

Francis Hodgson: Let’s start with a very simple perception that Brandt is by far the greatest British photographer and I include in that even Fox Talbot. Brandt is the only British photographer who’s absolutely world class as we come to the end of photography’s span as a separate art form. Curiously, the reason for that is that he didn’t regard photography as a separate art form. He was literate and educated in books and theatre and dance as a young man – he cared passionately about the arts – but the critical thing is that he was always somebody who had something to say. On my own personal level of admiration I think that there is no greater photographer because the messages are so important – he is somebody who really did believe in social equality, in a decline of a certain kind of idyllic British life.

 Bill Brandt
Street Scene, London, 1936

GC: So Brandt is a photographer who is not that interested in photographic practises?

FH: What you say is that he was never a hobbyist and never a darkroom obsessive but a complete photographer. The reason I’d say so is that he never made a photograph unless he had something to say in it.

GC: Brandt was a German émigré …

FH: Well, Brandt starts as a man in disguise. He’s German but pretends to be English although he’s German enough so that he never changes his own name. He was a unique émigré; in a generation where hundreds of important men came over from Germany and other European countries to work in Britain, Brandt was the man of British or rather half British decent who was very privileged and who came over not in fear of his life – indeed he came over to a very large house in Kensington. He is privileged in an era when people like The Cambridge Apostles and George Orwell state that it is
difficult to be privileged if you want to be a man of the left and he is quite genuinely a man of the left even though he was a very rich man all his life.

GC: His photography is initially inclined towards social documentary…

FH: He starts as a very considerable journalist. He’s interested in class, he’s interested in a changing society through industrialisation, and he’s interested in what I guess you would term ‘social fairness’. Photographs like the parlour maids, the cocktails in the Surrey garden, which all form part of the book The English at Home, are very largely to do with saying that ‘all of this’ can’t last. What he’s using as his tools to say it are really strict objective truth – he never felt he was lying in his pictures and enormous artistry – which always faked what he felt like faking.

For someone like me, I really appreciate the way that Brandt faked things so that the famous picture of the three men in overcoats in a dark alley – one of them is his brother in law, one’s a friend of his and they were all paid five bob and a good lunch in the pub to go and do it. He faked many of his photographs at this time. He’s a bit like Dashiell Hammett or Raymond Chandler – allowing yourself to say very important things about the state of the nation but through fictitious mechanisms.

GC: As opposed to say The Mass Observation Movement?

FH: Brandt was nearly seduced into Mass Observation – at one point he was made the staff photographer to The Home Affairs Ministry. Their staff draughtsman was Henry Moore and the two staff photographers were Brandt and William MacQuitty. They thought that they were being asked to be ‘artists to the war’ but they weren’t; they were being asked to be propagandists – something that they both frowned over as they both felt that they had their own things to say. Brandt kept the job, hence the great pictures like the sleeping people in the underground, but he refused to do propaganda.

What Brandt then discovered was a sensibility very close to that of Francis Bacon – they were both profoundly shocked by the war and both very alarmed that they could be frightened to death. Brandt becomes a man who discovers the power of a kind of ‘distillation’ of the truth; then you have to add his relationship with Stefan Lorant, which is very important.

Lorant was the first picture editor really to use news photography for more than news and to turn it into social comment – the first great magazine editor; famous in Britain because he founded both Lilliput and Picture Post and edited them. When Lorant arrived in Britain he found this stable of German émigrés – Felix Mann, Wolfgang Suschitzky and also British native-born photographers like Bert Hardy and Grace Robertson and he tries to weld their acute sense that the world was ending and that one had to talk about it fast into something newsy and sellable.

Brandt falls into that with open arms and thinks that this mix of profoundly serious and light suits him very well. Actually he’s a bit too serious for the market so that Brandt never becomes a staff photographer on Picture Post. He regards himself partly a ‘holly fool'; Brandt can say what ever he likes because no one owns him – he’s rich, he’s privileged, he’s beautifully well trained and he’s fantastically literate in the arts. His inclination is to produce a book like Literary Britain, a much more satirical book than the present nostalgic sentimental way of regarding this subject would produce – it’s more of a Betjeman-type book.

GC: To what extent does this represent a definition of Brandt’s photographic intentions?

FH: What you have is a beginning of a vision of a man who is partly George Orwell, he’s trained to some extent by Man Ray therefore partly a surrealist. He’s more of a literary man than visual man – basically a literary critic and social critic but he using a camera as his tool. Out of this you get an admirable body of basic work – the Bronte landscapes, the landscapes of Hardy – stuff that Brandt can do standing on his head. You also get a deeply disturbed vision of a privileged man himself worrying about privilege and a German Englishman worried about the relations between Germany and England and a kind of Kensington Intellectual worrying about the
decline of the things of the sense.

Brandt really did feel all his life that the educated classes had let down the nation by the failure of education – it failed to use education and culture for the things that it could do. The values that he felt to matter were being eroded left, right and centre. At the top end of the class structure they were eroded by a sort of treason, that people didn’t live up to the expectations of the world; and at the bottom they were eroded by economy – that people were too broke to be able to contribute.


his is a message-carrying photographer; it’s not a photographer who’s particularly interested in old-fashioned ideas of beauty – he invents his beauty. He’s very aware that the reproduction in journals when he started as a young man is not very good –so the more contrasty the picture the easier it is to reproduce in black and white. (In that scale of thinking there is a later photographer who is forever in his debt and that is John French – the fashion photographer and the teacher and pupil master to Bailey and Donovan.) But more than anything, he’s acutely determined to persuade and seduce audiences into believing the same things that he does.

GC: But by this period in his career, Brandt is pulling away from a straight form of photographic representation into other areas such as abstraction both in camera and to a certain extent tonally in the darkroom…

FH: My vision – and it may be wrong – is of three conflicting forces. A real artist, a surrealist interested in the value of the thing for its own sake. A message carrier-type of journalist working in that branch of surrealism, which is all about shocking the Bourgeoisie and changing things – he’s very genuine as that. He’s also a working journalist making his job on freelance piece by freelance piece, which is why he goes to places like Ascot.

Out of the three of them I struggle to make something called Brandt’s aesthetic to which you are alluding. What people think of as Brandt’s aesthetic are very, very dark prints from very late in his career when he had glaucoma and it was very difficult for him to see the prints and he didn’t really believe that the grainy, mid-toned prints that people were then used to seeing were very expressive.

What I also don’t hold with Brandt is that extraordinary thing called ‘The Print Market’. Late in Brandt’s life, people came to the realization that photography is difficult because its very common and that vintage prints are worth more money than modern ones and that prints need to follow certain rules: they need to be very pure, very clean. Brandt didn’t work like that, Brandt wanted to get a message across – he would frequently draw on a print with a biro or a felt-tipped pen, scribbled on it until he got what he wanted, made a copy negative from that print and sold prints from that. There’s nothing wrong with that, it’s utterly stupid to think that that isn’t pure because it doesn’t follow the cannons of 1970s American photographic habits. Brandt was a communicator – if he felt that he could do more with the print, he would and he’s following a long line of surrealist artists in doing that.

Photography is absolutely his medium but he doesn’t follow the very strict cannons of rarity, purity or authentic photographic seeing he’s not interested in photographic seeing, he’s interested in telling you things and that’s what makes him a great, great artist. A Brandt picture is only complete when the viewer gets what he wanted you to understand and if that took Biro marks or stabbing it with a pencil, all of which I’ve seen, then that’s part of the deal.

He’s a populist, he’s very demotic, and he’s very interested in the mass message. He’s perfectly happy to have pictures in Picture Post but very flattered when his pictures are exhibited in The Photographers Gallery late in his life. Then there is a shift as Brandt becomes Britain’s most famous photographer and rather enjoys it and becomes someone who suddenly thinks there is a market for his prints. So on a quite large scale, he begins to reproduce his prints and starts selling them through galleries and respectable dealers – at that point I think that the messages become less important.

GC: I gather that Perspective of Nudes received a mixed response at best when it was first published…
FH: Perspective of Nudes is very late compared to the images within it. You have to compare those pictures with Kertesz’s distorted nudes and Lee Friedlander’s nudes – Brandt is before either of them at doing it even though Perspective of Nudes is not published until the early 1960s, but may of the photographs date from the 1940s. Kertesz was doing it before, to be fair and with a very similar sensibility – the idea being that the female figure is something that everybody understands but the distortions by themselves lead to other kinds of beauty. I think Brandt was always considered the greatest photographer, the ‘granddaddy’ even though he lived through the period when photographers were not much respected.

GC: The greatest on a world stage?

FH: No, but that’s to do with the relations between the market for fine photography, the United States and its satellites. The history of that is that the Americans kidnapped the mainstream history of fine photography with a sequence of a very small number of collectors, curators and one or two critics who rewrote it to make it sound American; so that Brandt’s distortions are held to be less than Weston’s distortions, that Brandt’s social documentary is held to be less than Walker Evans and that the ‘mature years’ Brandt’s control of his market is considered flaky and not as focused as some one like Mapplethorpe or Lee Friedlander for example. All of which is a complete nonsense.

Brandt doesn’t fit into American versions of photographic history simply for the reasons that American marketeers couldn’t market him; because the prints were quite common, quite ‘damaged’ in their terms, he never made a platinum print in his life, he never tried to insist on the value of the artifact in itself – so he doesn’t fit. But on a world stage in our view now – absolutely. I think he’s underrated but I think that the beginning of a resurgence is back though I would be very surprised if he was an artist who’d had an exhibition somewhere in the world every year since he died. He should do – there should be a Brandt overview touring the world forever as there seems to be for Kertesz and Bresson.

GC: His influence and influences?

FH: Huge. Direct on people like Chris Killip, Graham Smith and Ian McDonald – a whole tradition of British documentary photography is completely founded by Bill Brandt.

His influence is absolutely immense on painters – that Brandt’s view of the world as something that could be made more expressive than it was is profoundly influential on people as diverse as Francis Bacon and David Hockney. Brandt’s influence is very great on a later generation of painters who felt that their own expression was much more interesting than the subject – what they have to say is more important than what they are saying it about.

Brandt is, in some ways, the first British modern artist and the heroes of British modern art, notably Roland Penrose, understood that. Later it becomes much, much clearer; so that when you get to someone like Paul Graham it’s very clear its Brandt who they’ve been looking at. His influence is absolutely enormous.

Brandt’s influences comes from a real admiration for the magazines of Paris in the 1920s notably Minotaure of which he was a great fan and then his relationship with Lorant and to some extent books. I don’t think it would be an exaggeration to say that Brandt was very influenced by Hemingway, late in his life by Raymond Carver, George Orwell and Zola.

GC: I see a lot of Balthus’s influence in Brandt’s nudes…

FH: Yes I agree.

GC: And I see both Balthus and Brandt influencing Duane Michals…

FH: Oh absolutely. Duane Michals has often written of his admiration for Brandt. Brandt is capable of turning something utterly trivial into something enormously important. He is capable of turning something enormously complex into something simply understandable. He’s capable of making little plays – little one-view plays which is the parlour maid running the bath or at the window – things that are so full of a kind of Edwardian sensibility. The other thing is that his aesthetic, his view of how a black and white print can have balance and shape and structure is pretty close to being right and no one has come close to beating it.

GC: He was notoriously reluctant to talk about his work and his means of achieving it…

FH: Yes that’s true and I suspect that partially he didn’t know. He was the least technical photographer; he didn’t much care for what camera he used, apart from the distortions where the camera made a difference; he didn’t much care for what paper he used – he looked at the results. I rather admire him for that. I’ve always thought that there is too much obsession with procedure and technique, it becomes formulaic and Brandt never did that. What he did and things he invented are now very visible – you look at Gerhard Richter and its very obvious they come from the nudes and Wolfgang Tillmans, there’s a definite Brandt thing there and he wouldn’t deny it.

GC: What is Brandt’s lasting legacy?

FH: Brandt took a difficult path and tried to turn a kind of Orwellian ‘drama/documentary’ into art. I suspect that he was probably a bit disappointed towards the end of his life; he enjoyed being a star but I don’t think that he quite felt that he had done what he set out to do; I don’t think that he felt he’d changed the world. Perhaps that’s a bit unreasonable in the same way that Hemingway or George Orwell didn’t change the world and that’s not what we really want those people to do anyway – we want them to hold a mirror up to the world for other, more practical people to do the changing.

Brandt did that fantastically well. If you were to ask, say, Neil Kinnock what his world view was it would very quickly become apparent it was formed by Bill Brandt; Fabian Socialism turned into comprehensible gobbits was Bill Brandt and that is a much greater achievement than anything he is given credit for in terms of a nice distorted nude or some very sharp perspectives on a beach in East Sussex.

GC: The North East photographs of miners come to mind, and the coal-pickers…

FH: Those photographs are fantastically powerful pictures in the psychology of the National Health Service. We know that titles can do great things and Jarrow is a very loaded word in British industrial history; but that picture, the man pushing his bicycle home, which many politicians will claim not to know who took it and they won’t remember the date, that picture is central to the welfare socialism that Britain would still possess had it not been for a reaction against it by Margaret Thatcher which lasted twenty years at the end of the last century. It’s really true that Brandt is central to the European surviving tradition of Democratic Socialism because Brandt made plain these kinds of complaints and upsets to people who really hadn’t seen them clearly before. And that’s a very considerable achievement – furthermore it’s very close to what he set out to do.

Text:  All rights reserved. Text @ Francis Hodgson and Geraint Cunnick

Images:  All rights reserved Bill Brandt © Bill Brandt Archive Ltd.