The dark, literary and strange universe of Bill Brandt’s photos

It is an event. Within the framework of PhotoESPAÑA 2021, Fundación Mapfre hosts an exceptional exhibition of the photographer Bill Brandt (1904-1983). Curated by Ramon Esparza, the vast sample offered in Recoletos contains 186 images, divided into six sections, with the accompaniment of magazines and books in which the German-British artist published his images, of some cameras that he used and of an educational and interesting BBC documentary in which the creator himself explains his work.

Bill Brandt’s career was marked by his initial concordances with surrealism, his passage through a documentary film with a strong social component and his evolution towards a subjectivity that led him to be especially interested in landscape and the nude -with nods to abstraction- and by the portraits of artists, mainly writers, which redounds to the literary gaze that presides over his work, governed by a gloomy perception of life that is expressed in the black and white of his photographs.

Esparza’s critical interpretation underlines the weight in Brandt’s work of surrealism, the psychoanalytic and the strange, theorized by Sigmund Freud on The sinister (1919) and revisited and revised by the Spanish philosopher Eugenio Trías -to whom is appealed in the exhibition- in The beuty and the sinister (1982).

Bill Brandt. Elephant and Castle Tube Station, 1940

Bill Brandt


Said like this, this triangulation between the surreal, the psychoanalytic and the sinister can give rise to expectations about aesthetic and visual concretions that do not materialize in the exhibition in all its literality, although they undoubtedly shape and perfume the atmosphere -key concept- of disturbing strangeness that emanates from all the images: the “dark lyricism”, as defined later by the French philosopher and writer Michel Tournier, one of his most illustrious exegetes.

Vienna and surreal Paris

Some biographical information helps to understand the paths through which the life and work of Bill Brandt passed. Born in Hamburg under the name Hermann Wilhem Brandt, into a very wealthy family, the son of an Englishman and a German, tuberculosis led him to be treated as a teenager and for seven years (1920-1927) in Davos (Switzerland) and in Vienna. This city was crucial. There he came into contact and under the guidelines of the doctor Eugenie Black Forest, an exceptional educator and woman with multiple dedications – a separate article would deserve – who welcomed him into her impressive circle of leading artists and intellectuals and encouraged him to dedicate himself to photography.

Thanks to her and her surroundings, she met the American poet Ezra Pound -There is a photo of him in the exhibition-, who served as a model for one of his first portraits. Pound enthusiastically recommended it to his friend Man Ray. In the Parisian studio of the multifaceted Dada / Surrealist artist, Brandt spent two months learning and prolonged the friendship.

Paris, then, in the heat of surrealism, is the second milestone in Brandt’s life, with four names that perimeter his development as a photographer: Ray, Eugène Atget, who had just died – what a great retrospective of him there was at Mapfre in 2011! -, the Hungarian André Kertész and he’s also hungarian Brassaï, the friend of Henry Miller. The influence of the last three will later manifest itself in Brandt’s way of photographing the city, the buildings, the street and the night.

Northumbrian miner having dinner.  1937

Northumbrian miner having dinner. 1937

Bill Brandt


And in the surreal connection, the friendship with the writer René Clevel, enthusiastic Bretonnian and communist and, incidentally, also tubercular. In the exhibition, an image symbolizes this nexus: Dressmaker’s mannequin (1929), photo of a mannequin with women’s clothing found on the street that fascinated and inspired a text by Clevel, I don’t know if, exactly, the one that accompanied a photo of Bill Brandt – this one? – published in the surrealist magazine Minotaur, your first post.

Documentalism and nudes

London, 1931. Third and final city. There, with the rise of Hitler To power and the anti-German environment, the crisis of his Germanic identity culminates and Brandt camouflages himself as an Englishman by birth. In 1936, the first book, The Englis at Home. In 1937, start of his collaboration in magazines: Lilliput, First, Picture Post Y Harper’s Bazaar. In 1948, the knock of his world consecration: an exhibition in New York and the retrospective book Camera in London.

In Mapfre we can see a very complete sample of his documentary photos: the overwhelming contrasts -which he published on facing pages- between the lives and environments of the rich and the working classes, the images of Londoners crowded into the subway stations when they Nazi bombings and night views of a ghostly London at night. The photos of the workers -or of the servants-, of their homes, streets and neighborhoods appeared to me as documentary antecedents, of marked political intention, of what would later become the novelistic, theatrical and cinematographic discourse of the “angry young people” from the 50s.

Young East End Dancing 'The Lambeth Walk', March 1939

Young East End Dancing ‘The Lambeth Walk’, March 1939

Bill Brandt


During the war, Brandt already began to be interested in nudes, but he increased his interest by ignoring documentary photography, which, in his opinion, was very popular. We see disturbing nudes in the interior of rooms, but then the framing of parts of the female body in exteriors, which are shown creating sculptural forms, draw powerfully attention for their originality abstract, as a result of a reorganized deconstruction, compatible forms and in dialogue with the sculptor’s pieces Henry Moore, whom he portrayed. Brandt and Moore met on the London Underground, working during the bombings, befriended and influenced each other. Exhibitions have been held putting the works of both artists in dialogue.

This dimensioning of the body takes on another meaning in the eyes of the great artists he photographed: an eye, in the foreground, the eye of the artist that sees and that looks and that is also seen by the eye of the camera and the photographer: art begins and ends here in the look. The look, look.

The disposition to abstraction is also manifested in the framing of certain landscapes, which seem reduced to the play of their spots and lines: a winding river, a straight path. Although the landscapes will also bring the literary perspective. They will be the landscapes of the writers, of the rural imaginary of the English poets and novelists.

Artists and writers

Brandt was in favor of the photographer developing his own photographs to achieve an expressiveness whose purpose only he could know. Or manipulate, since he had no problem reframing his images, intervening in them with brushes and substances, re-editing them. Photographs, generally in portrait format. In images of cities – harsh industrial cities, sometimes – there is a predilection for wet cobblestones, puddles, street lamps, and dim light through windows, which are generally the main points of light in gray atmospheres and off.

Francis Bacon in Primrose Hill, London, 1963

Francis Bacon in Primrose Hill, London, 1963

Bill Brandt


Ramón Esparza’s work materializes in a magnificent exhibition, definitive compared to smaller samples that we could see years ago in the rooms of BBVA and La Fábrica. Inexcusable for photography lovers, the exhibition has an additional interest for all those interested in art and literature due to the wide selection of portraits of visual artists and writers that it collects: from Picasso a Francis Bacon, passing by Joan Miro and of Dylan Thomas a Graham Greene, passing by Robert Graves Y E.M. Forster. Bill Brandt used to say that his subjects were inserted into their environment, that he looked at us directly, that he hardly spoke to them while taking his photographs. The strangeness.