What Went On in the Dark

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

By William Meyers March 12, 2013


Bill Brandt was not afraid of the dark. The Museum of Modern Art's title for its in-depth retrospective of the photographer's work is a play on "Shadow of Light," the title of the monograph Brandt published in 1966, but "light and shadow" is the more usual formulation when these two elements are paired; having "Shadow" come first emphasizes the dark. Some of Brandt's best-known work was shot after sundown, such as his book "A Night in London" or his pictures of wartime England (much of the Battle of Britain was fought at night), so darkness would be expected, but he had a predilection for what went on in the dark. Especially early on, his pictures take peering into.

Brandt is recognized as the most important British photographer of the 20th century, although he was born in Hamburg, Germany, in 1904 to a German mother and named Hermann Wilhelm. In 1927 he went to Vienna, where his younger brother lived, and there the tuberculosis that had kept him in a Swiss sanatorium for most of his teen years was apparently cured by psychotherapy. It was also in Vienna that he fell in with the artists in Eugenie Schwarzwald's circle, and it was through that connection that he ended up in Paris in 1930 assisting Man Ray. Brandt always acknowledged his indebtedness to Man Ray, who was the master of several photographic idioms, not just the surrealism with which he is most often identified, as well as a virtuoso of darkroom techniques.

When Brandt moved to London in 1933, his family's wealth gave him the leisure to investigate what he now regarded as his homeland, as well as access to privileged venues of English society. "The English at Home" and "A Night in London," published in 1936 and 1938, established his reputation, and MoMA is showing a generous selection of choice prints from these books. The dimly lighted couple embracing in "Soho Bedroom" (1934) was staged, as were several pictures of dubious nocturnal activities in alleyways and elsewhere, although they have the look of authenticity.



In "Backgammon, Mayfair" (c. 1937) an elegant young couple sits on the floor near a fireplace and concentrates on the board. A more intellectual group sits by a bookcase and talks in "Bloomsbury Party" (c. 1937). But Brandt also recorded what was going on below stairs: One cook writes at a table and another wearily rests her head on her hand in "Late Evening in the Kitchen" (c. 1937). "Parlourmaid Preparing a Bath before Dinner" (c. 1937) and "Parlourmaid and Under-Parlourmaid Ready to Serve Dinner" (1934) are two of his best-known images, the women in their white aprons and potlike caps, uniforms seen nowadays only in period television series. The social stations of all these people are clearly marked, but so are their individual personalities.

Maybe the loveliest image from this period is "East End Morning" (1937) a young woman on her knees with a scrub bucket cleaning a doorsill. The bit of brick we see outside is well lighted. But she is inside the doorframe, where it is much darker. The picture is printed dark; still, we can make out that she is attractive and neatly dressed, and that the twist of her body as she reaches in the bucket is balletic. The picture is marked by grace and respect, although we have to penetrate the deep shade to see it.

The photographs Brandt took on his trips to the industrial north of England in the late 1930s are nearly all dark, as befits that grim period. In "Back Street in Jarrow, Tyneside" (1937), the cat in the foreground is clear enough, but you have to penetrate the smog to see the woman hanging wash on a clothesline in the distance. "A Snicket in Halifax" (1937) is an ominous alley that leads nowhere.

Pictures taken on the home front are rarely an important part of a country's war record, but Brandt's images are indispensable to understanding Britain during the Blitz, Hitler's attempt to bomb the English into submission. "Liverpool Street Underground Station Shelter" (1940) shows Londoners preparing to spend the night sleeping in the Tube. Other pictures show them in pubs, trying to maintain an ordinary social life, or doing war-relief work. And there are pictures like "The Bombed City" (1942), "Bombed Regency Staircase, Upper Brook Street, Mayfair" (c. 1942) and the "Deserted Street in Bloomsbury" (1942) with its elegant lamppost unlighted and all in shades of gray.

The pictures of writers and artists that Brandt took over three decades, beginning in wartime, are darker than portraits usually are, and are dark psychologically. It is an extraordinary roll call of talent— Barbara Hepworth, Henry Moore, Tom Stoppard, Dylan Thomas, Evelyn Waugh —and Brandt found uniquely appropriate settings for each; most seem as if they were just interrupted in the act of creation. And that led to his famous series of landscapes, many associated with important literary figures or historical sites. The primitive "Avebury Stone Circle, Wiltshire" (1945) emerges from a fog, the grazing sheep as archaic as the megaliths.

And, finally, his nudes. They make me think of Jonathan Swift's Gulliver surveying the bodies of the Brobdingnagian women; seen close up they are simultaneously humorous, grotesque and erotic. The nude, as Kenneth Clark taught us, is a classic form, but Brandt succeeded in reorienting our understanding of it, first by picturing it in unfamiliar settings such as middle-class living rooms, and then by using a view camera designed for shooting landscapes; bringing the lens close to a body part enormously exaggerated its size relative to the rest of the body. Sarah Hermanson Meister, who curated "Shadow and Light," assembled more than 40 of Brandt's nudes so we can appreciate his creative fecundity, and multiple prints of some images to understand his experiments with scale and with contrast; toward the end, grays receded and everything was either black or white.

Bill Brandt died in 1983. He once wrote, "Photography is still a very new medium and everything is allowed and everything should be tried." That could be his epitaph.

Mr. Meyers writes on photography for the Journal. See his work at www.williammeyersphotography.com.