Flesh, form and a flash

On a pebbly beach in East Sussex in 1953, Bill Brandt persuaded a model to lie down naked on the wet shingle and stretch out her body in the wind with her head and shoulders just inches from the incoming spume of the waves. Brandt then lay down and placed his camera inches from her pillowy bottom.

By Joanna Pitman for The Sunday Times, 2004


The resulting photograph is an abstraction of a body, the monstrous swelling buttocks in the foreground slimming down to a pair of delicate shoulders in the distance, washed with hanks of dark wavy hair. The body is white and smooth against the dark shingle and the craggy rock of the background cliff. It looks strangely amorphous, like some giant spongy sea creature, beached forever.

Photography has always been a matter of eyes, intuition and intellect; and for eyes and intuition, few photographers have ever been as richly endowed as Brandt. When we look at his nudes, 25 of which are on display at the Focus Gallery as part of centenary celebrations of his birth, we find some extraordinary creatures of the imagination inhabiting a world which seems to lie parallel to our own, stretched out in some dream-like place and glimpsed only fleetingly in visions.

As a source of imagery they have never failed Brandt. Entranced, even obsessed, he returned to his nudes again and again over the course of 30 years. As if enacting recurring dreams, he placed these women in bare rooms or on shingle beaches, where his camera transformed them into sleeping giantesses in caves or ambiguous, headless creatures beneath towering cliffs.

Brandt’s nudes demand our full attention on several levels. They give off a sexual languor that comes out of the frame like a blast of heat. But they also have the power to change our perception of what the world is like.

Brandt knew well how the camera can isolate and explore fragments of the real world with such intensity that they take on new identities. When photographing nudes, he displaced objects and distorted scale in such a way that the viewer must reconsider the familiar. Looking at these photographs, we have to free our eyes and teach them to see the statement of intent in the natural form.

Following the contours of the body, his wide angle lens made knees and buttocks rise to form mountains or boulders, arms become columns, fingers become creatures set against the smooth pebbles of a French beach. In each one, the camera conspires to reshape reality and confound the eye with new permutations of the flesh, revelling in the folds and escarpments of the body.

Trained in a portrait studio in Vienna in the late 1920s, Brandt then spent a few crucial months in the studio of Man Ray in Paris in 1929. He learnt the rules in one city and how to break them in another.

Yet his short period with Man Ray had a profound effect on his work. His Surrealist eye glittered throughout his career, searching for strange and provocative beauty in unlikely places. It was certainly at work when he made a picture of another ambiguous nude in 1977, again on a Sussex beach.

A smoothly polished, pear-shaped back sits apparently headless and limbless on a rock that has been pock-marked by wind and weather. Its perfect rounded shape, marked only by the spinal bones protruding at the centre, sits enigmatically on its natural plinth bordered by a sheer cliff on one side and the sea on the other. With Brandt’s exaggerated perspective, this woman has been turned into a gigantic butternut squash.

For these formally abstracted nudes, Brandt used a turn-of-the-century camera built for police mug shots, designed to record facts, with a wideangle lens to gather them in and an aperture almost pin hole- sized to render them sharp. It gave him a new eye on the world, and with it he pushed and moulded the facts until they resembled fiction.

The Focus show covers some of Brandt’s most voluptuous nudes from 1948 to 1977, platinum printed as opposed to his preferred silver bromide format. It gives them more classical sculpted tones and, arguably, a greater erotic warmth.

This is most effective in the famous shot, taken in London in 1952, of a woman’s head, arm and single breast, a dark, melodramatic image, sculpted from light and dark, that tests the will of the viewer to resist the reverie of dangerous eroticisms. It is one of his most personal and powerful works.

Bill Brandt: Nudes runs until Jan 10 2004 at the Focus Gallery, 3-4 Percy Street, London W1 (020-7631 1150) Focus Gallery, W1