Attraction of opposites

The England of the 1930s and 40s would be unimaginable without the work of the photo-journalists who filled the pages of new magazines such as Weekly Illustrated, Lilliput and, pre-eminently, Picture Post, which sold in the hundreds of thousands and combined popular appeal with crusading zeal

Alan Jenkins  |  Financial Times Weekend Magazine, Mar 13, 2004 


Alongside images of girls at funfairs or skating rinks, photo-features on the lives of the unemployed imprinted the message of social injustice on the minds of a generation - the generation that lived through the Depression, fought the second world war, idolised Churchill and promptly turfed him out of office in 1945.

Yet this repository of quintessential Englishness was largely the creation of people who had their origins far from Bow Bells or the white cliffs of Dover. Picture Post and both its predecessors mentioned above were founded or co-founded by Stefan Lorant, a half-Jewish Hungarian refugee from Nazi Germany, who was joined by two ex-colleagues from Munich: Hans Baumann and Kurt Hubschmann. Edith Tudor Hart, a Viennese Jew, and her brother Wolfgang Suschitzky, swelled the exodus of photographic talent. As Paul Delany writes, England's "whole photographic culture" was, in 1934, when Weekly Illustrated was launched, "about to be transformed by these new arrivals from Germany, Austria and Hungary".

But in a sense it already had been transformed, though few as yet knew it. 1934 was also the year that saw the definitive removal to England of another (voluntary) exile, a man who, with a handful of extraordinary pictures already behind him, would go on to create some of the most original and forceful images of the century, and in the process raise photo-journalism to a high art.

This was Bill Brandt, greatest of all the many photographers employed on Lorant's magazines, and the most enduringly "English" - or so he would have liked us to think. In fact he was born to a family of wealthy Hamburg merchants and bankers. His grandfather had lived in London and London was where his three elder sons, Brandt's uncles, made their homes; the whole family would later re- group there as a second war became inevitable.

Brandt's youth was shadowed by tuberculosis and a deep dislike of his native Germany (first felt long before Hitler came to power in 1933). All through it, London had exercised a powerful attraction. England, the "charming island", would be both homecoming and escape.

Brandt had, in some accounts, all but fallen into photography by accident, going to work in a studio in Vienna at the suggestion of a family friend. Paris had its Cartier-Bresson, its Brassai - and its Man Ray, to whom Brandt was briefly apprenticed. Brandt would become London's photographer, wandering its streets and alleys and towpaths with his Rolleiflex and returning to a darkroom installed in a tiny flat in Belsize Park, the capital's "little Vienna" of refugee psychoanalysts, artists and intellectuals.

The photographs he took are "documentary realism" only in the sense that the engravings of Gustave Dore are. The longer we look at them, the more akin they seem to a kind of visual poetry. His coal- blackened miners, smirched urchins and stoic parlourmaids, his East-End girl doing the Lambeth Walk and defying us not to applaud the joyous lifeforce she embodies, are dramatic, expressive figures, heightened from life by Brandt's own preoccupations (or neuroses, as Delany more bluntly asserts); glimpses into a human reality as much imagined as recorded, seen with warmth and humour, but without condescension.

When these subjects are set - as they so tellingly were in Brandt's first book, The English at Home - beside the elegant rituals of Mayfair, or a gathering of the haute bourgeoisie for "Cocktails in a Surrey Garden" as the lights go out all over Europe for the second time, Brandt's pictures become politically charged and the juxtapositions pointed.

But we would be mistaken to see here a simple message or a single meaning, as Delany is at pains to point out. Brandt himself repeatedly stressed the importance of formal properties and what he called "atmosphere, the spell that charged the commonplace with beauty" - or with dignity or menace - and it is these that strike first: the areas of intense darkness, the high contrasts of light and shadow, white and black, the subtle distortions of perspective, the unfamiliar viewpoints. Contrast, Delany insists, is a theme much favoured for its own sake, not (primarily) intended to tweak the viewer's social conscience. "Contrasts and inequality were everywhere," Cyril Connolly wrote about Brandt's 30s, "but not discontent... He grasped that in a class-ridden society all classes could be happy."

I'm not so sure. Was it Brandt's conscience or merely his "anthropological" curiosity that took him, after witnessing the arrival of the Jarrow marchers in London in 1935, to the industrial Midlands and north of England, to the mines and the dark satanic mills, to photograph the living conditions of families there? The photographs he took bear their own witness to a shaming desolation, but they are also startling and richly satisfying works of art. Like all his other pictures, they had to be "staged". In contrast to the Cartier-Bresson school of Leica photography - a volley of rapid exposures aimed at capturing "the decisive moment" in an action or a scene - Brandt stuck with his Rolleiflex and with slow exposure, carefully setting up his shot in advance, posing his models, arranging his lighting. (Many of his most characteristic pictures are night-scenes, but even his daytime shots might have been taken at night. For his Underground bomb-shelter scenes from the Blitz, an assistant accompanied him, shining a torch on Londoners' sleeping faces while Brandt photographed them.)

Brandt often employed his wives, mistresses, friends and relatives as models, "casting" them sometimes in familiar roles, sometimes not. But then his "real people" are seen to be playing roles too. There is a preponderance of uniforms, from the bobby on the beat to the West End swell in top hat and tails.

None of this - the careful maintaining of distance, the habit of patient observation, the sensitivity to self-presentation - is exactly unexpected in a photographer. Delany calls one of his chapters "The Ethnographer", and the term is true to Brandt's fascination with the rituals of the English tribe, with social identity and social status, the trappings or the traps of class. But this ethnographer brings to bear on his chosen area of research a sensibility informed by the whole European 20th century: by several changes of language and identity, by the displacement and murder of Jewish friends, by German Expressionist cinema, Luis Bunuel and Citizen Kane; by psychoanalysis and cafe-society, the photographs of Atget and August Sander and the dream-world of the Surrealists.

These served to modify or mediate what Brandt had already learnt in the hard school of illness - consumption, asthma - and alienation, in the bureaucratic as well as the psychological sense.

The condition of "enemy alien" was a familiar one to Brandt, from an early age. His comfortable existence as the second son of four born to rich bourgeois parents was curtailed by the first world war, when his father was interned. Brandt was packed off by the autocratic Brandt senior to be a boarder - the only boarder, and a British subject too - at a new school, a "fortress of discipline" in patriotic, militaristic Prussia. According to Delany his experiences here - some bullying, perhaps even "some unspeakable humiliation" - "turned him into an Englishman", and were the source of lifelong neuroses.

Brandt, a shy, secretive man, was curious enough about these to have himself psychoanalysed - twice, and inconclusively - before his death in 1983. Delany's research has uncovered all that we are ever likely to know about the ways in which Brandt's problems worked themselves out, or failed to, in his personal life, his three marriages (two of which were to fellow consumptives), his desire both for domination of and submission to women, his need for the simultaneous attentions of two "wives" (one current, one ex). Undercurrents of sexual suggestion, often present in the earlier work, become more explicit in the series of Expressionist nudes that Brandt began to photograph in the mid-1940s, culminating in the "Beach" series, in which the naked female body is given a sculptural monumentality, inseparable from the mineral life of pebbles and cliff-face and water.

These nudes are probably the works for which Brandt is now most famous, and he thought them his best work, perhaps because, standing apart from his urban "reportage" and from the portraits that made up the bulk of his commissions in the 1950s and 60s, they are free from any editorial requirement, and make no concessions to any aesthetic other than that of personal vision.

Certainly, they are pictures of extraordinary technical originality. "Nude, 1952", with its dazzlingly exaggerated contrasts, is a hauntingly beautiful image, and the last of those works - apart from one or two late, sublime landscapes - that seem at once to define and exemplify the nature of Brandt's genius: mannered, in a way even, at the extremes, melodramatic, but utterly persuasive.

Early in his absorbing book, as illuminating of the work as it is informative about the life, Delany makes the brilliant suggestion that the contrasting tones of snow and pine forest in the environs of Davos, in Switzerland, where the young Brandt was treated for tuberculosis, and the X-rays that were an everyday fact of life in the sanatorium, sank deep into Brandt's subconscious to provide the leitmotif of his life's work. His suffering, and the feeling of remoteness from others to which it gave rise (and which in turn caused others to suffer), may have been a high price to pay for that work, but we should be grateful that he had no choice.

Alan Jenkins is deputy editor of the Times Literary Supplement.

Two Bill Brandt exhibitions open in London this month: "Bill Brandt: A Centenary Retrospective", V&A, March 24-July 25, 2004; and "Bill Brandt: Portraits", National Portrait Gallery, March 20- August 30, 2004.