In for a revelation

On exhibit at the Naples Museum of Art, the photography of Bill Brandt documents mid-20th-century England

By Donald Miller November 28, 2003 | Naples Daily News, FLA 


Picture Museums are often special because they acquaint you with the work of someone you never knew about before and after seeing it will probably never forget. The Naples Museum of Art does that with "The Photography of Bill Brandt," 170 outstanding black and white images by this British master (1904-83).

Brandt's photographs range from early surrealist influences through dark views of London and Great Britain before and during World War II. Then come his portraits of famous people as well as dramatic landscapes and nearly abstract female nudes that sometimes seem to be landscapes themselves.

If you were a child in the 1930s-'40s, you can compare and contrast these images with those of your own youth. Glass milk bottles on front steps with the newspaper are icons of those days (and the memory of how the cream on freezing mornings would rise like thick white stems). If you were born later, the prints seem almost of another century. Brandt's coal-covered miners and children seem of a different world while his shots of parlor maids in their starched uniforms are more like the 1910s than the 1930s when seen with less formal American styles of that period.

I confess I was unaware of Brandt; had never, as it were, put into his shore, despite his six books. This is possibly because his work has not been widely distributed in the United States. But now feel I will remember him, and this retrospective exhibition both for its content and the memories of a lost time it evokes. So, if you don't know Brandt's images, you are in for a revelation if you give them careful study.

Brandt was a whole new talent -- somewhat like Americans W. Eugene Smith and Edward Weston -- but still his own artist. I recall a similar experience I had in 1971 at the Norton Simon Museum in Pasadena, Calif., when I first saw the black-and-white images of Mexican master Manuel Bravo. I have carried the impact of his work with me ever since. And I had the same feeling on seeing the quaintly gorgeous photography of Eugene Atget at the Museum of Modern Art many years ago.

I mention Atget (pronounced "Atjay") because Brandt was also moved by his work when the nearly forgotten French photographer's prints were published in 1929 two years after his death. It was Brandt's year of coming alive to photography, he wrote. He spent a few months assisting in the Paris studio of Philadelphia-born Man Ray (1890-1877) the surrealist painter and inventive photographer. Steeped in both Ray and Atget, Brandt, son of Anglo-German parents and who had grown up in Germany, settled into London and became a professional photographer, working for magazines and experimenting on his own.

Carrying the mental images of Ray and Atget, Brandt fell in love with the poor sections of London and the character of the laboring class. Like the Franco-Hungarian Brassai, his contemporary in Paris, Brandt found London's characters and shady nightlife fascinating. He manipulated his prints in the darkroom, making them even more dramatic than they might have been.

He was also in his element with London's wartime blackouts that prompted memorable shots from people sleeping in the Underground quays to his capturing moonlight on the ancient spires and domes. He was not above adding a moon here and there for heightened effect.

With magazines calling him, Brandt moved on to more elegant subjects like soirees and garden parties in stately houses of the 1930s. Then on his own and using a telephoto lens, he spied on parlor maids in starched white uniforms and caps opening their masters' windows. One shot, of two parlor maids waiting to serve dinner is surely a classic. The women stand beside the fully set table in tall white caps resembling dessert souffls.

Before long Brandt was portraying the rich and talented. Rather than concentrating like Yousuf Karsh, whose work is on view intermittently in the Phil galleries this season, on intensely characterizing close-ups, Brandt chose a more naturalistic, news-photographic style, although he too keyed up these prints in the darkroom.

Because of the literary magazines he worked for, he photographed many writers, poets and artists. Brandt's surrealist past surfaces in his study of Rene Magritte in a derby holding a print of his painting of a man in a derby with his face hidden by an apple. Brandt also shows Giorgio De Chirico in a cropped profile with his face lit from below and reflected in a mirror.

There is artist Francis Bacon standing near a tilted lamp-post, suggestive of his eerie world. In the dual portrait of poet Dame Edith Sitwell and her author brother Sir Osbert, Edith in a broad-brimmed black hat sits and Osbert stands beneath John Singer Sargent's 1900 portrait of them, their parents and siblings in a Venetian palazzo. The show's hardback catalog ($75) describes how Brandt increased the photograph's highlights. Perhaps Brandt's surrealist past emerges in his extreme close-ups of famous artist's eyes, their wrinkles recalling elephant's skins.

Brandt at heart was a fierce though quiet romantic, said to have "the voice of a moth." He used an old Kodak camera with pinpoint focus to capture many of his haunting landscapes, among them the Yorkshire moors house, Top Withins, said to have inspired Emily Bronte's "Wuthering Heights."

It is remarkable how smoothly Brandt's landscape studies eventually evolve into his nudes posed on beaches. Like Weston, Brandt, as in earlier days, strengthened dark and light contrasts, selected bizarre angles and contorted his lithe models. In the end he turned them into living sculptures, his most graceful subjects of all.

Naples Museum of Art director John Hallmark Neff chose this exhibition organized by The Bill Brandt Archive and Curatorial Traveling Exhibitions. After its stay in Naples, the exhibition will travel to the Victoria and Albert Museum, London.

Donald Miller lives in Naples and is the author of six books on artists and architects.

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