Bill Brandt leaves picture-perfect legacy - and it's on show Art Basel Hong Kong
By Francesca Fearon | Thursday, 15 May, 2014
Bill Brandt is regarded as one of the masters of 20th-century photography. The German-born, London-based photographer was known for his portraits - which included Francis Bacon, poet Ezra Pound and novelist Graham Greene - and his landscapes, his reportage of London during the blitz and his nudes.
Brandt was, according to London gallerist Michael Hoppen, "part of that young group of artists [in the 1920s and 30s] who saw photography as the great new development of science, art and technology. He created beauty out of science".
A major exhibition of Brandt's work was staged at MOMA in New York last year, which has excited the market and prompted the Michael Hoppen Gallery, which represents the Bill Brandt estate, to bring a collection of his photographs to show at Art Basel Hong Kong.
After the war, Brandt's interests turned to landscapes and then to the human form, photographed within the landscape - mostly on the Sussex coastline - but in a very abstract way. Out of this emerged a series of female nudes, some of which play with shape and perspective in the landscape and, at times, are redolent of Henry Moore's abstract female sculptures.
MOMA considers Brandt's nudes, photographed between 1945 and 1961, as his crowning achievement. Michael Hoppen selected 22 works from this period to exhibit in Hong Kong. They are not sensationalist, as the subject matter is not always obvious.
"I like Chinese and Japanese ink paintings with their tremendous dexterity," Hoppen says. "And there is symmetry with Brandt's nudes, which similarly demonstrate an economy of line, but instead of painting with a brush he plays with light and dark in the darkroom. It is all about blending."
Hoppen says he is looking forward to seeing the response to this supposition when the photos go on display. He describes the nudes as "economic abstraction", and certainly there is a softness and subtle sensuality to the images. "Brandt paints with light," he says. Such is the alchemy of the darkroom and the retouching brush - each of these prints is unique and would be very difficult to replicate.
Hoppen, who specialises in vintage 19th- and 20th-century vintage photography and contemporary photographic art, knew Brandt when he was himself a photography student at the Royal College of Art. "He was a very gentle man. He taught me retouching [images] in the Bunch of Grapes pub in South Kensington. Like most photographers, he loved technique, but he didn't love the darkroom - he liked to be outside shooting."
Brandt was born in Hamburg in 1904 and moved to Paris to work in Man Ray's studio for a period in 1929, mingling with the Surrealist artists. Like Brassai, he became known for his night photography. He moved to London in early 1931, documenting British life before and during the second world war working with Lilliput, the Picture Post and the British Home Office.
He worked with a variety of cameras from a Rolleiflex to a Hasselblad Superwide, which he used for his later beach nudes in the 1960s.
He continued to photograph nudes into the 1970s and in his last years taught and took portraits until his death in 1983. The value of Brandt's photography has soared as a result of the MOMA exhibition. London's V&A held a centenary retrospective in 2004, and his photographs were selling for between £3,000 (HK$39,500) and £7,000. Today, his work is valued from £6,000 to £40,000. One photograph was sold in the United States - though not by Hoppen - for US$275,000.
According to the gallery, this is the first time Brandt has been exhibited in Asia so, given the rarity of these original prints, this is a unique opportunity to see the work of someone in the pantheon of great photographers.
This article appeared in the South China Morning Post print edition as Brandt leaves picture-perfect legacy