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Inductee Sponsor: Larson Enterprises, George Larson
His career spanning more than 50 years, Bill Brandt (1904-1983) is considered one of the most diverse and dramatic photographers of the 20th century. He began his photography career as a social documentarian, but eventually moved to abstract and surrealist photography late in life.
Brandt was one of four boys; he was born in Hamburg Germany on May 3, 1904. In 1920 Brandt contracted tuberculosis and spent the next six years in a hospital in Davos. Upon his release he traveled to Vienna where he found a job working with Greta Kolliner in a portrait studio. During his work at the studio he took the portrait of American poet Ezra Pound. He was very impressed with the image and recommended that Brandt go to Paris to work with Man Ray. He moved to Paris in 1929 to work in Man Ray’s studio. Though he only worked there for three months, Brandt was profoundly influenced by the surrealist style, and also became fascinated by the work of Parisian photographer, Eugene Atget. Both influences are vividly evident throughout Brandt’s career. While working with Man Ray, Brandt also did some freelance photography for Paris Magazine. Brandt moved to England in 1930, Brandt’s adopted home, and continued freelance photography. In 1934 Minotaure, a surrealist magazine based in Paris , published one of his first surrealist images. In 1936 he published his first book The English at Home, which documented the economic and social conditions in England . He traveled for several more years and photographed in Barcelona , Toledo and Madrid . Lilliput, a fine-art magazine dedicated to photography was first published in 1937 and included many images by Brandt. Brandt was quickly becoming one of the most-sought photographers of his time .
The social documentation that Brandt did for these magazines was ground-breaking. England was in the midst of a depression. Brandt captured the essence of the people suffering and produced some of the finest photographic essays for Lilliput. Francis Hodgson, noted curator, writer, historian and critic, said of Brandt, “let’s start with a very simple perception that Brandt is by far the greatest British photographer and I include in that even Fox Talbot. Brandt is the only British photographer who is absolutely world class as we come to the end of photography’s span as a separate art form. Curiously, the reason for that is that he didn’t regard photography as a separate art form. He was literate and educated in books and theatre and dance as a young man—he cared passionately about the arts—but the critical thing is that he was always somebody who had something to say. In my own personal level of admiration I think that there is no greater photographer because the messages are so important—he is somebody who really did believe in social equality, in a decline of a certain kind of idyllic British life”.
His second book, A Night in London, followed in 1938. During World War II, he recorded the effects of the war in London . Many of the photographs were taken at night, without flash, during the city’s blackouts. Influence by Brassai, who remained his lifelong friend, Brandt’s night-time images are saturated with mood and atmosphere.
Through the duration of the 1930s and until the end of the 1940s, Brandt worked for the Ministry of Information, the National Building Record and continued his work for Lilliput, Picture Post, and Harper’s Bazaar. Brandt’s work with Harper’s Bazaar issued in a new era of his career. Portraiture and fashion photography become as important to Brandt as his social documentation. He photographed Salvador Dali, Cecil Beaton, Henry Moore, Rene Magritte, Francis Bacon, Joan Miro, and many more. In addition, with many of his travels, he had grown to enjoy photographing the landscape.
By 1950 Brandt’s work made another major turn to a more expressive, artistic approach. He purchased an old wooden camera with a wide-angle lens that complemented his artistic style. “One day in a second-hand shop, near Covent Garden , I found a 70-year-old wooden Kodak. I was delighted. Like nineteenth-century cameras it had no shutter, and the wide-angle lens, with an aperture as minute as a pinhole, was focues on infinity. In 1926 Edward Weston wrote in his diary, ‘the camera sees more than the eye, so why not make use of it?’ My new camera saw more and it saw differently. It created a great illusion of space, an unrealistically steep perspective, and it distorted. When I began to photograph nudes, I let myself be guided by this camera, and instead of photographing what I saw, I photographed what the camera was seeing. I interfered very little, and the lens produced anatomical images and shapes which my eyes had never observed. I felt that I understood what Orson Welles meant when he said, ‘the camera is much more than a recording apparatus. It is a medium via which messages reach us from another world.’” The acute distortion produced by the lens created an abstract perspective in his subsequent landscapes, portraits and nudes. The images he created with the unnatural perspective, unusual viewpoints and the use of strange lighting shocked people at the time, but forever broadened the boundaries of imagery. Most of his influential work with nudes was taken in Normandy and on the Sussex Coast . In 1961 Brandt published his first book of nudes, Perspective of Nudes . Later, Shadow of Light , a retrospective of Brandt’s work was published. His first retrospective exhibition opened in 1969 at the Museum of Modern Art in New York . Edward Steichen and John Szarkowski were both involved with the production. This exhibition set forth a series of exhibitions around the world, including Paris , Stockholm , San Francisco , Houston , Boston and Washington D.C. His photographs are held in numerous private and public collections. The Bill Brandt Archive, located in London, offers limited edition Bill Brandt images and books.
Brandt received an honorary doctorate from the Royal College of Art in London , and was named as an Honorary Fellow of the Royal Photographic Society of Great Britain.
He was one of the “World’s Greatest Photographers” in June 1968 as declared by the Observer. Brandt suffered from diabetes for more than 40 years and on December 20, 1983 died after a short illness. At his request, his ashes were scattered in Holland Park . Earlier in his life he had married, but he never had children. However, Brandt was insightful when he said, “the photographer must first have seen his subject, or some aspect of his subject as something transcending the ordinary. It is part of the photographer’s job to see more intensely than most people do. He must have and keep with him something of the receptiveness of the child who looks at the world for the first time or of the traveler who enters a strange country….they carry within themselves a sense of wonder.”
The most important aspect of Bill Brandt’s career was that he was open to all aspects of photography as a totally exploratory medium. The importance of recording his vision on film was just as important as his darkroom work. His commitment to the medium, in such that even a camera could teach him how to see a new perspective, has earned Brandt a place in the history of photography. Bill Brandt was inducted into the International Photography Hall of Fame and Museum in 1984. His inductee plaque is sponsored by George Larson, Larson Enterprises.
By Lori Oden, For the International Photography Hall of Fame