The Peep Show

Bill Brandt grew up hating his mother and terrified of intimacy. But decades later he became transfixed by the female form. His photographs reveal the depths of his obsession.

Richard Cork - The Sunday Times 


Coal-smeared miners, top-hatted gentry at Epsom races... Nothing in Bill Brandt's earlier photographs prepares us for the astonishing impact of his female nudes. Until the end of the second world war, Brandt had focused on the social extremes of British life.

Born in Hamburg, he viewed our class divisions with the eye of an outsider who had only made England his home in 1931. Women appeared in his early work, but not like this. Esther, Brandt's sister-in-law, had posed on the beach as a grinning and waving 'Brighton belle' in 1936. His Hungarian first wife, Eva Boros, had taken on the role of a prostitute in several of Brandt's early pictures. He had photographed sunbathers in 1942. But they all kept their clothes on.

Brandt's powerful, obsessive imagination was formed in childhood. His early years had been profoundly unhappy, dominated by a mother he hated. He took refuge in books filled with the work of English illustrators. Dogged by tuberculosis, as an adolescent he was sent to a Swiss sanatorium, where he devoured yet more books. So it is scarcely surprising that his camera at first viewed women with the eyes of a dream-haunted child, who dared not hope for a more intimate relationship. But then, suddenly and unaccountably, everything changed. One moment he was photographing stern, correctly uniformed servants for a Picture Post feature on 'the Perfect Parlourmaid'; the next, he was focusing on naked young women with tempestuous tresses. They would be sitting on a bedroom chair or leaning, with heavily sensual make-up, on a dining-room table laden with wine, cheese and fruit.

He was a master of dramatic contrasts between luminosity and deep shadow, and the illicit flavour of these images was enhanced by their lighting: pale bodies against heavy curtains and windows, the London streets beyond enveloped in gloom. In the photograph Campden Hill, 1949, the woman, seen from behind with a lamp-lit bed in the distance, was Brandt's second wife, Marjorie Beckett. An especially mysterious image, Micheldever, was taken in 1948 inside the Hampshire house of the photographer's wealthy father. The model was the daughter of the local policeman; but the ominous atmosphere evoked a world closer to Orson Welles's Citizen Kane, or Hitchcock's Suspicion, both among Brandt's favourite films. The woman extends her arm and open hand across a table, apparently inviting us to enter her hypnotic world.

By the 1950s, Brandt was shooting nudes with uninhibited zeal. The female bodies - friends' daughters and professional models - became subjected to intense scrutiny. Brandt was closing in on breasts, buttocks, bellies, knees and feet as if he had never seen them before. Not that he aimed at the straightforwardly erotic: he had discovered a small-aperture, wide-angle Kodak camera in a junk shop, and its distorting lens lifted the images to another plane. The camera had previously been used by the New York police department for reportage, but Brandt described how he wanted his lens to behave 'like a mouse, a fish or a fly'.

Before Brandt moved to England, he had been attached to Man Ray's studio in Paris for three months. Man Ray's surrealist approach to the female form may well have rubbed off on him, but most of Brandt's finest nudes are shot outside, whereas Man Ray favoured interiors. Beaches in East Sussex, Normandy and the Côte d'Azur now became Brandt's arenas: thighs placed like sculptures in an empty expanse of sea and sky.

He had also travelled to Henry Moore's Hertfordshire home in 1946 to photograph the sculptor resting both arms on a grand woodcarving of a recumbent nude. Many of Brandt's own nudes share Moore's view of woman as landscape. However, Brandt's photographs retain a vivid sense of flesh-and-blood humanity. Even the most abstract, simplified nude turns out, on close inspection, to have buttocks peppered with goose pimples.

© The Times November 16th 2003