Brandt Sheds Light Through Dark Photos

BILL BRANDT WAS a poet of darkness who wielded the color black so expressively that his work should properly be called photography noir.

Ariella Budick


Brandt (1904-83) was born into an Anglo-American family in Hamburg and raised in Germany but passionately embraced England as his home spent a lifetime committing to film his countrymen's idiosyncratic mores, their entrenched class system, literary heroes and windswept landscape. A thrilling new exhibition of his work at the International Center of Photography delves into the intense world of one of the greatest - and most sombre- photographers of the century.

In two books from the 1930s - "The English at Home" and "A Night in London" - Brandt scrutinized the way England's class hierarchies etched themselves into the architecture, dress and very postures of its people. One striking picture, seldom displayed or reproduced, shows rows of top hats and bowlers on the shelves of a haberdasher's window (Hatter's Window, Bond Street 1931-5). The flash of Brandt's camera reflected by the shiny black wall of the display throws these talismans of upper-class life into monumental relief and gives them a shadowy, menacing air.

The props of Englishness fascinated Brandt, but the human beings in his pictures remain virtual ciphers. Their faces rest in perpetual shadow or are cut off entirely by the frame. Often they turn their backs to the camera. Archetypal roles, not individual psyches compelled the photographer's interest.

In Brandt's gothic England, the sky is always dark, the rains about to fall, the flood imminent. An apocalyptic forecast issues from these pictures, which seem to say: "You will pay for your inequalities, snobbishness, exploitation and poverty."

Brandt never hesitated to swathe road patches of an image in velvety black. In a Kafkaesque '30s series he shot of Halifax, an industrial town in England's depressed North, the sooty architecture bears down on minuscule inhabitants confined to narrow pathways. here as elsewhere, Brandt dispensed with subtle gradations between light and dark areas - art photography's classic goal- in favor of unmodulated visual and emotional intensity.

In the portraits, Brandt is perhaps at his most perverse, submerging the faces of many of his subjects beneath inky shadows. Darkness obscures at least half of Graham Greene (1948) and his jacket is reduced to an abstract silhouette. Brandt steadfastly refuses to "reveal" the writer. choosing instead to capture the mystery of the man, to confirm for us that his essence is unknowable. The drama enacted by the sharp tonal contrast is the visual counterpart to Greene's eternal subject: the conundrum of a person's character.

The portraits. along with highly personal landscapes and nudes, come to dominate his work after World War II, when the peaks and troughs of the British class system leveled off somewhat and Brandt lost his enthusiasm for transcribing it.

In the show's extraordinary finale, a series of nudes loll insides London apartments and beside deserted beaches. Their smooth rounded flesh seems to negate the beds, chairs and breakfronts that ornament the Victorian interiors. Yet out of doors, these same polished limbs meld imperceptibly with the light gray stones and sky.

The body and the earth engage in a fit of mimicry in that civilization plays no part. by the end of his career, Brandt, a chronicler of civilization's darkness seemed entranced by nature's light.

© Newsday 1999