Nothing out of the ordinary, but more than meets the eye

There is a view, popular in England, that Bill Brandt's talents as a photographer have long been underestimated. This idea is quietly quashed by a touring retrospective of his photographs at the Yale Center for British Art in New Haven, which confirms that Brandt, perhaps Britain's most famous 20th-century photographer, was no more or less a talent than we've always thought: marvelous chronicler of London streets and air raid shelters during World War II, patchy portraitist and lousy nude photographer.

By Benjamin Genocchio - The New York Times April 27 2003


What does emerge from this show, organized by the Bill Brandt archive in London, is a sense of what makes so many of Brandt's images so memorable.

There is nothing innovative about the form or design of his photographs, at least not until he began photographing nudes in the 1940's. That much is clear. Rather, it's the sensitivity to the subjects that is the strong point of his pictures. Working within the traditions of detached documentary photography, Brandt developed a style that was intimate and personal.

Photography, for Brandt, was all about capturing details on the edge of life that we otherwise wouldn't see. Like Henri Cartier-Bresson, he wanted to celebrate the beauty of ordinary moments. One series of photographs records the activities of parlormaids in the homes of wealthy Londoners, while another documents the grim industrial landscape of northern England and the lives of the working class people who lived there. No subject was too small or mundane to be deemed unworthy of his attention.

Brandt's photographs reflect the extreme contrasts of wealth riving English society in the 1930's. For instance, compare ''Coal Miner's Bath, Chester-Le-Street, Durham'' (1937) with ''Parlourmaid Prepares a Bath'' (1938). The first shows a miner bathing from a pail on the kitchen floor, his wife dutifully scrubbing his filthy back with a sponge, while the second image shows a maid in bonnet and apron bent over an old-fashioned bath tub testing the temperature of the water. Never the twain shall meet.

Brandt's England is mostly dark and serious, although there are occasional bursts of sunshine. ''East End Girl Dancing the Lambeth Walk'' (1939), shows a young working-class girl practicing the Lambeth Walk, a social dance popular in the 1930's. The look of nervous delight on the face of the young dancer combined with the shrieking laughter of her friends creates an image of infectious joy. Brandt had a real knack of making complete strangers feel totally at ease in front of the camera.

Brandt developed most of the prints in the show, some of which show signs of retouching in pen and pencil. This was common among early photographers, many of who were eager to enhance the quality of their work. ''Fountain, Barcelona'' (1930) looks like a fairly normal image of a fountain until you realize that the water on the umbrella has been painted onto the print. Brandt also blackened the teeth of the central figure in ''Barmaid at the Crooked Billet'' (1939) to enhance the overall sense of rough if honest indigence it conveys. There are other examples too, although not as obvious as these.

Brandt probably learned to retouch prints from the American photographer Man Ray, with whom he worked in Paris in 1929 before deciding to move to London to work as a freelance photojournalist. Half a dozen of Brandt's early French photographs are included here, although they lack the intimacy and sense of emotional rapport with the subjects that characterize his later English pictures. He is too self-conscious.

Brandt's unmitigated triumph as a photojournalist is a series of photographs of World War II London during the German blitz. Here at last was a subject worthy of his burning ambition. He rose to the challenge, photographing the empty streets of the city at night, bombed-out buildings and crowds taking refuge in underground subway stations. More than just great photographs, they are reliable social documents.

Following the war, Brandt moved into portraiture. When taking a portrait, so an apocryphal story goes, he would make his subjects sit doing nothing until they were completely relaxed. He wanted them to appear natural, shorn of any pretense or affectation for the camera. Sometimes his method worked, as in his remarkably revealing portraits of Graham Greene, Francis Bacon and Pablo Picasso, although in other instances his subjects just look dull and bored. The portraits are very hit or miss.

Brandt's nudes, his major preoccupation from the 1950's onward, consist of female bodies photographed to look like the modern sculptures of Henry Moore and Barbara Hepworth that he admired. Only in one or two of these photographs does he achieve a complete abstraction of form, with a torso, hip, breast, arm, leg or even ear becoming a sculpture in its own right. The rest are as tired as an old biscuit.