Bill Brandt: Known & Unknown

A photographer should have the gift of seeing the world "fresh and strange," said Bill Brandt (1904- 1983), a classic name in photography.

Grace Glueck - New York Times, March 30 2001


Brandt, an Englishman of German birth, is noted for his portraits, landscapes, buildings, documentary essays and abstract nudes. And his high-contrast prints, often infused with the Surrealist spirit he absorbed in Paris as a young man, when he worked with Man Ray, give ample evidence that the gift was his.

This show of more than 80 representative photographs from the collection of Brandt's widow, Noya, pretty much covers his range of subjects from the late 1920's to the late 1950's. Some of the images are very well known, like the parlormaid series of the 1930's, in which the mores of prewar upper-class English households are seen through poignant views of their servants.

In vivid counterpoint are his views of downscale life in working-class towns during the same period: vignettes of a coal-begrimed miner in northern England dining in his tatty kitchen, for example, or a drudging housewife in Bethnal Green scrubbing her front steps.

But Brandt eventually tired of photography as document, and after covering the home front in World War II he began to work on the poetic side of his art, in which portraiture, landscapes and nudes loom large.

The most unconventional of the portraits here are those of the artists Jean Dubuffet and Jean Arp (1963). Each is nothing more than a close-up of an eye shining wetly in the aged and wrinkled pouch of skin it occupies. Brandt reveals more of his subjects in a wonderful double portrait of Edith and Osbert Sitwell (1945) occupying a classy ancestral setting, she in a big, witchy black hat that perfectly complements her sharp, seigniorial face.

What makes this show is the generous selection of Brandt's famous nudes, some straight, some distorted versions of the female body or abstracted parts. Often photographed with a wide-angle lens and extreme depth of focus in spacious rooms that dramatize their presence, these far- from-conventional nudescapes may have a grossly exaggerated arm, leg or other feature. They disturb the viewer's sense of rightness-with-the- world, but that was the aim of Brandt's adventurous lens.

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