New York Photo Review
Volume 4 Issue 31 July 30 to September 10, 2013

The Genetic Wars by Barbara Confino

A Modernist Master
Bill Brandt
Shadow & Light
Christopher Stromee

Photo by Bill Brandt . Source: moma.org
Bill Brandt, "Jean Dubuffet" 1960.
Although less well known than Henri Cartier-Bresson or Walker Evans, Bill Brandt is considered to be among the founding fathers of modernist photography. The superb retrospective of this British master’s work at MoMA, Shadow and Light, is the first comprehensive exhibition in the U.S. since 1969. On view are over 150 black and white images from 1929 through the 1970s. In addition, the exhibition features spreads from the tony photo-story magazines that commissioned Brandt’s work in the 1940s. The images in the show, all using gelatin silver emulsion, were printed by Brandt who was concerned with every nuance of the printed photograph.

Born into a merchant banking family in Hamburg, Brandt (1904-1983) moved to London permanently in 1934, after apprenticing with Man Ray in Paris. There Brandt was exposed to Man Ray’s experimental techniques as well as to the work of other outstanding contemporary photographers. Most notably, Hungarian-born Brassaï’s Paris de Nuit, 1933, whose inky expanses and unconventional realism are evident in Brandt’s work of the 1930s and 1940s.

The exhibition establishes a thematically based chronological trajectory through six phases of Brandt’s career. In 1934 Brandt began what became his signature photographic record of English life across a full spectrum of society. Some of the most memorable photographs in this collection document the upper-class milieu Brandt had access to through his father’s family. Among familiar images from the mid-thirties is one of the parlor maid whose personal identity is almost snuffed out under a white lace-trimmed helmet cap and voluminous apron. In another striking image, Kensington Children’s Party, 1934, the array of helium balloons straining on strings look livelier than the poised, well-groomed children who hold them. Yet not until publishing The English at Home in 1936 did he secure his first commissions.

In 1937 Brandt traveled to Northern England to photograph the effects of the severe economic depression, the subject of the second exhibition section. Here images depict industrial landscapes and the poverty of coal miner families. The third section, England at War, features images from the blackouts. The iconic St. Paul’s Cathedral in the Moonlight, 1939 shows its silhouetted dome with rubble in the foreground, and various underground stations occupied as air-raid shelters. Other images include such subjects as Bombed Regency Staircase, Upper Brook Street, Mayfair, c. 1942, in which a collapsed wall reveals this graceful spiraling form and its interlocking shadow.

Photo by Bill Brandt . Source: moma.org
Bill Brandt, "London" 1954.
The fourth section concerns formal portraits, also commissioned, which emphasize contemporary cultural figures in Britain. These images show Brandt, reflecting a general trend in photography, shifting from atmospheric shades of grey in the later 1940s to strong dark-light contrasts in the 1960s and 1970s. The portraits are elegantly meditative. Several of these, in which the subject is shown in front of layered architectural elements, seem to embody distinct psychological qualities. In Harold Pinter, Battersea, London, 1961, the playwright stands before a sturdy stone viaduct. This structure suggests strength but it is a barrier to the sunny square that is visible beyond, and the dark underpass may express some disturbing emotion. The fifth section is comprised of commissioned landscapes from 1945 to 1963, which also demonstrate the drift toward stronger dark-light contrasts.

The concluding section encompasses images of nudes from 1945 to 1959 contorted by a wide angle lens. Ranging from interiors with seated women to astonishing biomorphic arrangements on a pebbly beach, the nude compositions, with their extremely exaggerated distortions (perhaps influenced by André Kertész’s Distortions) are presented as Brandt’s most original work.

Highlighting the stunning range of this work, the MoMA show is one anyone interested in the history of the medium should see.

Bill Brandt
Shadow & Light
Curator: Nat Trotman

The Museum of Modern Art
11 W 53rd St.
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212 708 9400
moma.org

Wednesday, March 6 to
Monday, August 12, 2013
Hours: Weds to Mon, 10:30 to 5:30, Fri to 8
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