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Having blogged about Willy Ronis, Robert Doisneau,Bert Hardy and Roger Mayne, you may have noticed I like street photography, realism, photo journalism, documentary and a modernistic approach to photography ( with a hint of surrealism) . Fifth in  line, for my blogs  comes Bill Brandt, whose images  I have been fond of, for many years.

His story is told in his own words.

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Bill Brandt, self portrait with mirror.     1966 East Sussex Coast

What does Brandt say about his art…

“It is part of the photographer’s job to see more intensely than most people do. He must have and keep in 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. Most photographers would feel a certain embarrassment in admitting publicly that they carried within them a sense of wonder, yet without it they would not produce the work they do, whatever their particular field. It is the gift of seeing the life around them clearly and vividly, as something that is exciting in its own right. It is an innate gift, varying in intensity with the individual’s temperament and environment.”

‘I had the good fortune to start my career in Paris in 1929,working in the studio of Man Ray.’

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   Man Ray

For any young photographer at that time, Paris was the centre of the world. Those were the exciting early days when the French poets and surrealists recognised the possibilities of photography.

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Racegoers Paris 1931

There were the surrealist publications, Bifui, Varietes Minotaure and others, the first magazines to choose photographs for their poetic quality. There were the surrealist films such as Bunuel’s notorious Le Chien Andalou and L’Age d’ Or, which had a strong effect on photography. One could say that it was now that modern photography was born.

Atget’s work was at last being published. He had died almost unrecognised, two years before. Brassai, Kertesz and Cartier-Bresson were all working in Paris, as well as Man Ray. Man Ray, the most original photographer of them all, had just invented the new techniques of rayographs and solarisation. I was a pupil in his studio, and leamed much from his experiments.

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Paris -la nuit -1932

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London

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“The extreme social contrast during those years before the war was, visually, very inspiring for me.”

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“I started by photographing in London, the West End, the suburbs, the slums”.

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Doing the Lambeth Walk-East End, 1939

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“Looking back now, one can see that already two trends were emerging: the poetic school, of which Man Ray and Edward Weston were the leaders, and the documentary moment-of-truth school. I was attracted by both, but when I returned to England in 1931, and for over ten years thereafter, I concentrated entirely on documentary work.”

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Parlour Maids

“I photographed everything that went on inside the large houses of wealthy families, the servants in the kitchen, formidable parlourmaids laying elaborate dinner tables, and preparing baths for the family; cocktail-parties in the garden and guests talking and playing bridge in the drawing rooms: a working-class family’s home, with several children asleep in one bed, and the mother knitting in a comer of the room. I photographed pubs, common lodging-houses at night, theatres, Turkish baths, prisons and people in their bedrooms.”

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“London has changed so much that some of these pictures have now the period charm almost of another century. After several years of working in London, I went to the north of England and photographed the coal-miners during the industrial depression.”

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1937

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“My most successful picture of the series, probably because it was symbolic of this time of mass unemployment, was a loose-coal searcher in East Durham, going home in the evening. He was pushing his bicycle along a footpath through a desolate waste-land between Hebburn and Jarrow. Loaded on the crossbar was a sack of small coal, all that he had found after a day’s search on the slag-heaps. I also photographed the Northern towns and interiors of miners’ cottages, with families having their evening meal, or the miners washing themselves in tin-baths, in front of their kitchen fires.”

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Jarrow 1937

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Chester le street

 

A photographer must be prepared to catch and hold on to those elements which give distinction to the subject or lend it atmosphere. They are often momentary, chance-sent things: a gleam of light on water, a trail of smoke from a passing train, a cat crossing a threshold, the shadows cast by a setting sun. Sometimes they are a matter of luck; the photographer could not expect or hope for them. Sometimes they are a matter of patience, waiting for an effect to be repeated that he has seen and lost or for one that he anticipates. Leaving out of question the deliberately posed or arranged photograph, it is usually some incidental detail that heightens the effect of a picture – stressing a pattern, deepening the sense of atmosphere. But the photographer must be able to recognize instantly such effects. – Bill Brandt –“Camera in London”, The Focal Press, London 1948, p. 16
But I did not always know just what it was I wanted to photograph. I believe it is important for a photographer to discover this, for unless he finds what it is that excites him, what it is that calls forth at once an emotional response, he is unlikely to achieve his best work. – Bill Brandt – “Camera in London”, The Focal Press, London 1948, p. 10
If there is any method in the way I take pictures, I believe it lies in this. See the subject first. Do not try to force it to be a picture of this, that or the other thing. Stand apart from it. Then something will happen. The subject will reveal itself. – Bill Brandt – “Camera in London”, The Focal Press, London 1948, p. 17]

Most frequently reproduced of all my photographs, is the Portrait of a Young Girl resting on the floor of her London room. Perhaps it is not really a portrait. Her face fills the foreground and beyond the profile stands a chair and a chest of drawers; seen through two windows are houses on the other side of the street. This picture may have been subconsciously inspired by Orson Welles’ film Citizen Kane.

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“The technique of this film had a definite influence on my work at the time when I was starting to photograph nudes.”

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1949

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“I am not interested in rules and conventions … photography is not a sport. If I think a picture will look better brilliantly lit, I use lights, or even flash. It is the result that counts, no matter how it was achieved. I find the darkroom work most important, as I can finish the composition of a picture only under the enlarger. I do not understand why this is supposed to interfere with the truth. Photographers should follow their own judgment, and not the fads and dictates of others.”

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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.

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“Photography is still a very new medium and everything is allowed and everything should be tried. And there are certainly no rules about the printing of a picture. Before 1951, I liked my prints dark and muddy. Now I prefer the very contrasting black-and-white effect. It looks crisper, more dramatic and very different from colour photographs.”

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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.

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“These last pictures are close-ups of parts of the body, photographed in the open air, I saw knees and elbows, legs and fists as rocks and pebbles which blended with cliffs and became an imaginary landscape.”

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“Feeling frustrated by modern cameras and lenses which seemed designed to imitate human vision and conventional sight, I was looking everywhere for a camera with a very wide angle. One day in a secondhand 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 focused on infinity.”

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“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’. For over fifteen years I was now preoccupied with photographing nudes. I learned very much from my old Kodak. It taught me how to use acute distortion to convey the weight of a body or the lightness of a movement. In the end, it had also taught me how to use modem cameras in an unorthodox way, and for the last chapter of my book Perspective of Nudes which was published in 1961, I discarded the Kodak altogether.”

I am not very interested in extraordinary angles. They can be effective on certain occasions, but I do not feel the necessity for them in my own work. Indeed, I feel the simplest approach can often be most effective. A subject placed squarely in the centre of the frame, if attention is not distracted from it by fussy surroundings, has a simple dignity which makes it all the more impressive. – Bill Brandt – “Camera in London”, The Focal Press, London 1948, p. 13

A video summary of one of Brandt’s books -Shadow of Light

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Portraits

I always take portraits in my sitter’s own surroundings. I concentrate very much on the picture as a whole and leave the sitter rather to himself. I hardly talk and barely look at him. This often seems to make people forget what is going on and any affected or self-conscious expression usually disappears. I try to avoid the fleeting expression and vivacity of a snapshot. A composed expression seems to have a more profound likeness. I think a good portrait ought to tell something of the subject’s past and suggest something of his future.

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Dylan Thomas 1941

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Robert Graves 1941

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Henry Moore 1945

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Pablo Picasso 1957

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Peter Selllers 1963

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Magritte 1966

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“One of my favourite pictures of this time is Top Withens on the Yorkshire moors. I was then trying to photograph the country which had inspired Emily Bronte. I went to the West Riding in summer, but there were tourists and it seemed quite the wrong time of the year. I liked it better, misty, rainy and lonely in November. But I was not satisfied until I saw it again in February. I took the picture just after a hailstorm when a high wind was blowing over the moors.”

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Top Withens,  1945 – Bill Brandt

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A video summary  from the BBC Master photographers series:

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