For those interested in the history of photography, Bill Brandt: Shadow & Light is a fascinating show that just opened at MoMA. Billed as a “major critical reevaluation” of a founding figure in photography’s modernist tradition, it is a landmark overview of a photographer who, for a variety of reasons, is not a household name, but well worth discovering.
Born in Germany, Brandt (1904-83), like Capa and so many seminal European photographers of his generation, fled his homeland and in the 1930s landed in London. England became his permanent home and, for much of his career, his major subject.
The exhibition of more than 150 of his works is divided into six sections: London in the Thirties; Northern England; World War II; Portraits; Landscapes; and Nudes.
Though there is a brooding, black-and-white sensibility – and exquisite darkroom mastery – linking his entire 20th Century work, nothing in his early images prepares us for his evolution as a photographer, especially for his bold, often strange and graphic later work. In short, Brandt cannot be easily pigeonholed, which probably contributed to a career less well known and appreciated than that of his peers.
In his early images, Brandt brilliantly captures class divisions within 1930s England. Perhaps because he brought a fresh eye to the highly stratified society in which he found himself, many of his images evoke the dour realities and Mayfair glamour of “Upstairs Downstairs,” as do his grim and haunting images of coal miners in Northern England.
Brandt received assignments from leading U.K. magazines, and became famous for his images of London during the Blitz. Particularly memorable are those of Londoners bedded down in London’s underground shelters.
But it is his post-war Portraits and Nudes that linger in this viewer’s mind.
His portraits encompass the range of literary and theatrical luminaries of the 1960s and 70s, from Harold Pinter and Francis Bacon to Tom Stoppard and Vanessa Redgrave. They are cool and well composed but not as compelling as his series of aging “eyes” of famous artists, including the familiar sooty eyelid of Louise Nevelson. It is as though, privately, he was trying to capture the intensity of vision that distinguished his subjects and produced great art.
These images hint at Brandt’s growing fascination with highly cropped, manipulated and distorted forms that culminated in his 1950’s nudes.
Reminiscent of Irving Penn’s “Earthly Bodies” nudes, also executed in the 1950s, they are both abstract and immersed in flesh, visually associative in unexpected ways (an ear on a shell-strewn beach), and wonderfully compelling. They testify to his artistry, unique vision and unflagging passion. It’s a beautiful exhibition. And for those who wish to further explore Brandt’s oeuvre and darkroom techniques, a catalogue of the entire exhibition, with 254 illustrations, plus an essay by Curator Sarah Hermanson Meister, and an illustrated glossary of Brandt’s retouching techniques, is available.
Photos by Eleanor Foa Dienstag
11 West 53rd Street
March 6th to August 12th, 2013