Surrealist who found beauty in the commonplace

Spare a thought for Angus McBean. Under normal circumstances, the centenary of his birth this year would be the cause for celebration. His misfortune was to have been a contemporary of Cecil Beaton and Bill Brandt, those twin titans of British photography, whose own centenary exhibitions take precedence in London's galleries, shunting McBean's retrospective back to 2006.

Financial Times April 13, 2004


As with Beaton, a selection of Brandt's portraits can be seen at the National Portrait Gallery, though, in terms of size and print quality, it plays second fiddle to a concurrent show at the Victoria & Albert Museum's photography gallery, a habitually dismal space that has been beautifully transformed with blackened walls and dimmed lighting to mimic a Brandtian nightscape.

Amid the gallery's gloom, curator John-Paul Kernot (Brandt's step-grandson) and the V&A's Mark Haworth-Booth have gathered 155 immaculate vintage silver-gelatin prints, covering Brandt's four main areas: photojournalism, landscape, portraiture and the female nude. Before his death in 1983, Brandt brutally culled his archive in order to preserve his artistic legacy. As such, there are few surprises on view, save for a clutch of photographs that the German-born Brandt took while Man Ray's assistant in Paris during the late 1920s.

These early efforts give little clue to the superlative work Brandt produced following his permanent move to Britain in 1934. Stimulated by industrial blight and class inequalities, he first found acclaim as a contributor to Picture Post, with contrasting images of wealth and poverty: Mayfair balls and East End pubs, hatchet-faced parlour maids waiting upon their masters.

The documentary nature of these 1930s scenes has caused Brandt to be somewhat miscast as a social realist. Yet, while appearing to fall within the traditions of detached reportage, many of the images are orchestrated.

The Bethnal Green youngster performing an impromptu Lambeth Walk does so at the photographer's bidding; a barmaid's teeth have been blackened by Brandt in the darkroom; a brooding 1945 landscape of the Yorkshire Moors has been crafted from different negatives.

Other images are populated by Brandt's friends and family, masquerading as ordinary Londoners. David Hockney, for one, has suggested that these deceptions, which Brandt never made public, devalue the work. Perhaps it makes more sense to read them as products of his Surrealist sensibility, a blurring of the lines between the real and imagined.

In all these forays into photojournalism, Brandt was less concerned with documentary authenticity than a desire to "charge the commonplace with beauty". This became more explicit after the war, when, turning to landscapes and nudes, his negatives became the raw material for almost poetic picture-making. With stark high contrast replacing tonal subtleties, most of his work took place in the darkroom, be it cropping, dodging or burning to create black and white mood pieces of elemental intensity.

His 1963 picture of Cuckmere river has all detail removed, leaving only a looping bend of abstraction where sky and water and Sussex meet.

His nameless, usually faceless, deep-focus nudes, mainly taken in the 1950s, are similarly preoccupied with formal beauty. Elongated limbs fill the foreground, the particulars of human anatomy treated as studies of contour and perspective, betraying Brandt's early interest in architecture and, as Haworth-Booth rightly points out, a debt to Edward Weston.

Dare one suggest an unlikely link with Cecil Beaton. The simultaneous centenaries have prompted much talk about the photographers' polarities, but there is also common ground, both in their bravura visual sense and shared fascination with artifice and theatrics. Beaton was an admirer, praising Brandt as the greatest British photographer of his age. A bold claim, but one this thrilling exhibition wholly supports. No wonder Angus McBean has been made to wait in the wings.