NEW YORK — Subtitles don’t come any more direct, or accurate, than “Bill Brandt: Shadow and Light.” This ample and enthralling retrospective — it includes more than 150 photographs, as well as some 60 snapshots taken by or of Brandt early in his career, and several display cases of vintage magazine spreads — runs at the Museum of Modern Art through Aug. 12.
Yes, “shadow and light” describes the work of all black-and-white photographers — past, present, and Instagram — but perhaps none more so than Brandt (1904-1983). The interplay of darkness and illumination is his visual touchstone. Understood as metaphor, it no less characterizes Brandt’s work. It’s there in the relationship between upper and lower classes in his remarkable images of Britain in the ’30s. It’s there, too — and most important of all — in the steadily evolving balance between form and content over the course of his career.
The 20th century ended more than a decade ago, time enough to erase any doubts about whether Brandt was its foremost British photographer. He demonstrated mastery of social documentary, portraiture, landscape, nudes. His best work in any of those fields would have made him a major photographer. Documentary accounts for three of the six sections of the MoMA show; the other three account for the remainder.
Actually, there is a reason one could dispute Brandt’s preeminence among 20th-century British photographers. He wasn’t exactly British. Born in Hamburg to a British father and German mother, Brandt grew up in Germany and Switzerland. He eventually went to Paris, where he worked as an assistant to Man Ray. He didn’t move to England until 1933. So he was an Expressionist by birthright, Surrealist by training, English by choice.
Both styles would serve Brandt well, as would his being an outsider on the tight little island that was Britain in the ’30s. There’s a sense of the sociological, even anthropological, to his documentary photographs of that decade. Cool but never cold, detached without being aloof, they take nothing for granted. Brandt records the eccentric. Yes, that really is a large dead fish atop that Billingsgate porter’s helmet. More telling, he also records the eccentric in the ostensibly normal. Britons of every class took for granted the fact, and ubiquity, of domestic servitude. Brandt didn’t. He notices its socioeconomic oddity. The woman in “Parlourmaid at a Window in Kensington” looks all but imprisoned. He also notices (here we find the anthropologist as artist) how visually striking certain forms of that oddity could be. “Parlourmaid Preparing a Bath Before Dinner,” with its various curves of white (cap, tub, apron straps) against dominant curve of black (the maid’s dress), shows what an eye he had for both geometry and contrast.
Brandt was just embarking on a career, really, and his influences keep peeking through many of these photographs: Brassaï, Atget, Andre Kertesz. They peek, but what stares out at the viewer is something else: the emergence of a distinct and unique sensibility.
Brandt’s 1937 photographs from the north of England reveal just how distinct. This is coal country; and Brandt presents dark satanic mills, and mines, beyond anything in William Blake’s most fearful imaginings. With its ruthless angularity, “A Snicket in Halifax” (“snicket,” in northern English dialect, means passageway) is Expressionism made architectural. It could be the ramp leading up to Dr. Caligari’s asylum. “Coal-Searcher Going Home to Jarrow” might illustrate an Old Testament passage — assuming, that is, that Yahweh ever gave Job use of a bicycle. With “Northumbrian Miner at His Evening Meal” shadow becomes flesh, in the form of the miner’s blackened hands and face. The light is the whiteness of plates and bowls. The images are so vivid and direct you have to look to notice the artistry. Make no mistake, it’s very much there. These photographs have an eloquence that rivals, and at times surpasses, that of George Orwell’s prose in “The Road to Wigan Pier.”
One of the London photographs shows a children’s party, with toy balloons rising to the ceiling. Brandt took it in 1934. Looking at them, one can’t help but think of the sight of barrage balloons over London a few years later. The third section of the show consists of wartime work: Londoners using Underground stations as shelters, the blacked-out city illuminated only by moonlight, bomb damage. The war gave all but free rein to Brandt’s Surrealist side. If truth is the first casualty in war, congruity is the second.
The war also gave Brandt a new outlet. One of his first serious photographs was a 1930 portrait of Ezra Pound. A decade later he began getting portrait assignments from magazines. Literary and cultural figures became a specialty. The show includes portraits of Robert Graves, Dylan Thomas, a very young Martin Amis, Tom Stoppard, Vanessa Redgrave (how much she resembles her now-deceased daughter, Natasha Richardson).
Brandt said he sought from his sitters an expression somewhere between “dreaming and action.” Were the dreams suppressed nightmares? A weighty disaffection connects so many of the portraits. Only once does a sense of playfulness break through. The members of “Beyond the Fringe” were the fizziest flowers of Oxbridge wit in the early ’60s. Which makes Brandt’s presenting Jonathan Miller, Alan Bennett, Peter Cook, and Dudley Moore as a quartet of yobs all the more hilarious. For once, the grim miens in his portraits takes on a whole new meaning. With Harold Pinter or Francis Bacon (one of Brandt’s greatest, and most alarming, portraits), it’s a mark of cultural gravity. With these guys, it becomes a terrific joke.
Part of Brandt’s talent in an individual style or genre was an ability to merge it with another. He could find the surreal in the documentary, or elements of landscape in portraiture. There are eight very tight closeups of artists’ eyes in the MoMA show. They double as statements about character (the frankness with which Jean Dubuffet meets the camera) and studies of epidermal terrain (Jean Arp’s wrinkles are positively pachydermous). When Brandt turned to literal landscapes, at the end of the war, the results were no less stylized. They are starkly, unashamedly stagy. “Stonehenge Under Snow” is breathtaking — Golgotha with the three crosses could hardly look more dramatic — but he knows it’s breathtaking. There’s an element of stuntwork to it.
Brandt’s nudes have far more in common with his landscapes than his portraits. So it’s fitting that they take their titles from the locations where he shot them. These images are about topography rather than psychology. His models hardly exist as individuals. They’re occasions geometry lessons or the assessment of specific body parts. A lesson in curve and line, “London,” from 1954, is flesh as theorem. The body parts, often distorted by the wide-angle camera he used, can be breasts, buttocks, interlinked fingers, foreground-filling toes, an ear that looks like an enormous sea shell (the model is lying on a rock-strewn beach). These are not sexy nudes, to put it mildly. They display an unnerving detachment. “Perspective of Nudes” is the title Brandt gave to a 1961 book, and perspectival experiment is what most interests him in these photographs.
Sarah Hermanson Meister, who has curated the exhibition, sees the nudes as Brandt’s “crowning artistic achievement. One can see why she likes them so much. They aren’t just bravura. They declare they are bravura. In them, Surrealism joins hands with Greek Archaic art. But those hands never feel other than marmoreal. Artifice is all. The ballast of reality that so wonderfully informs his work in the other genres effectively disappears. With the nudes, Brandt gives himself up to the pull of formalism. The balance between form and content tilts almost completely toward form. That balance is best maintained in the north pictures. Artifice is unmistakably there in the ’30s photos, too, but just as unmistakably set off by humanity.
The formalism of the nudes and later landscapes is so mannered as to seem dated. In their wildly different way, they appear now as much a part of the first decade or two after World War II as Dior’s New Look or Eames chairs or Saul Bass credit sequences do. That is no criticism of those photographs. Like those dresses and furniture and combinings of typography and silhouette they are creative, distinctive, enduring. But they’re not transcendent, as the ’30s photographs are. This is the paradox of Brandt’s work. Those images which are so unmistakably of their time transcend it to become classic, even universal. Those which he strove to give the appearance of timelessness seem such manifestations of a certain look, a certain era. The relationship between shadow and light in his work? It’s no less temporal than visual.
Mark Feeney can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.