Bill Jay, Bill Brandt at home in London, 1969
Hermann Wilhelm Brandt (1904-1083) was born in Hamburg. His English father, Louis Brandt, was the owner of one of Hamburg's traditional trading houses; his mother, born into the German-Russian merchant family von Oesterreich, came from St. Peterburg. Bill's older brother Walter later became the head of the family's private London bank Brandt, William & Co, and his younger brother Rolf was living as a painter also in London. With the rise of National Socialism the Brandt family returned to England. Shortly after the First World War, Bill contracted tuberculosis and spent much of his youth in a sanatorium in Davos, Switzerland. (So far, Bill Brandt's story is surprisingly reminiscent of Hans Castorp's in Thomas Mann's famous 1924 novel The Magic Mountain).
In 1927, Brandt travelled to Vienna, where he was taken up by Eugenie Schwarzwald, an Austrian philanthropist and writer. She found him a position in a portrait studio, and also introduced him to Ezra Pound. Pound apparently gave Brandt an immensely valuable introduction to Man Ray whom he assisted in Paris for several months in 1930. Here he witnessed the heyday of Surrealism, and grasped the new poetic possibilities of photography.
Brandt travelled in continental Europe with Eva Boros, whom he had met in the Vienna portrait studio. They married in Barcelona in 1932. Night photography became one of Brandt's specialities and this may be his earliest experiment in the genre. Here he posed Eva Boros as a nightwalker in St. Pauli, the red light district of Hamburg. Family and friends were to play many roles in his social documentary scenes.
Brandt and his wife settled in Belsize Park, north London in 1934. The majority of Brandt's early English photographs were first published in his book The English at Home (1936). He used his family contacts - for example, his banker uncles - to gain access to a variety of subjects. The book contained a number of pointed social contrasts, such as the high life presented on the front cover and the poor family shown on the back cover.
Taken in the house of one of Brandt's banker uncles, Brandt's photo-essay The Perfect Parlourmaid appeared in Picture Post, the Life magazine of the United Kingdom, in 1938. This photograph was first published, opposite a Matisse painting of a dinner table, in Verve magazine in 1938. Bill Brandt had met Tom Hopkinson, his editor at Picture Post in 1936. He described Brandt as having "a voice as loud as a moth and the gentlest manner to be found outside a nunnery".
Brandt's second book, A Night in London, was published in London and Paris in 1938. It was based on Paris de Nuit (1936) by Brassaï, whom Brandt greatly admired. The book tells the story of a London night, moving between different social classes and making use - as with The English at Home - of Brandt's family and friends. Night photography was a new genre of the period, opened up by the newly developed flashbulb (the Vacublitz was manufactured in Britain from 1930). Brandt generally preferred to use portable tungsten lamps called photo-floods. He claimed to have enough cable to run the length of Salisbury Cathedral.
Spurred by the Jarrow Crusade of 1936 and reading George Orwell's The Road To Wigan Pier and J.B. Priestley's book An English Journey (1934), Brandt visited the industrial north of England for the first time in 1937. Priestley described the condition of the north east, where the effects of the Depression and the closure of ship-building yards had resulted in 80% unemployment: "The whole town looked as if it had entered a perpetual penniless bleak Sabbath. The men wore the drawn masks of prisoners of war". Brandt carefully documented coal-searching - the retrieval of small lumps of coal from spoil heaps - and the domestic life of the miners.
The blackout photographs, probably Brandt's own idea, were made during the "phoney war" period, after war had been declared but before serious hostilities between Britain and Germany had begun, plus a second set in 1942. Elizabeth Bowen, one of Brandt's favourite writers, wrote in her story Mysterious Kôr: "Full moon drenched the city and searched it; there was not a niche left to stand in. The effect was remorseless: London looked like the moon's capital - shallow, cratered, extinct. And the moon did more: it exonerated and beautified".
After the London Blitz began, Brandt was commissioned to record bomb shelters by the Ministry of Information. His photographs were sent to Washington as part of the British government's attempt to bring the US into the war on the allied side. From 1945 onwards, Brandt made a series of landscape photographs, accompanied by texts selected from British writers which appeared in Picture Post and the American magazine Harper's Bazaar. Brandt waited years for the opportunity to photograph Stonehenge under snow. His image provided the cover for the issue of Picture Post for 19 April 1947. This dealt with Britain in crisis, as post-war euphoria gave way to austerity.
Although Brandt's career began, decisively, with his close-up portrait of Ezra Pound in 1928, portraiture flowered in his career only in the 1940s. The portraits were commissioned by Lilliput, Picture Post and Harper's Bazaar. His portrait of Dylan Thomas, for example, appeared in Lilliput in December 1941. A Gallery of Literary Artists appeared in the same magazine in November 1949, including the Sitwells and Graham Greene.
Bill Brandt, Francis Bacon, 1963
Bill Brandt experimented with nude photography since the 1930s but made a decisive breakthrough in 1944 when he acquired a mahogany and brass camera with a wide-angle lens. He enthusiastically acknowledged a debt to the wide-angle, deep-focus cinematography of Orson Welles's Citizen Kane (1941). The camera, a 1931 Kodak used by the police for crime scene records, allowed him to see, he said, "like a mouse, a fish or a fly".
Brandt published Perspective of Nudes (with a preface by Lawrence Durrell) in 1961. It featured nudes in domestic interiors and studios, as well as on the beaches of East Sussex and northern and southern France. Brandt used professional models, but also sometimes family and friends as models for his nudes. His second wife, the journalist Marjorie Beckett, modelled for the following photograph - one of my all-time favorites:
Brandt's last years were spent reissuing his work in a series of books. He taught Royal College of Art photography students and continued to accept commissions for portraits. He was working on a show, Bill Brandt's Literary Britain, when he died in London after a short illness in 1983. The exhibition became a memorial tribute to Brandt the following year. You can see many more of his photos in the Bill Brandt Archive.