Photo Corners

A   S C R A P B O O K   O F   S O L U T I O N S   F O R   T H E   P H O T O G R A P H E R

Enhancing the enjoyment of taking pictures with news that matters, features that entertain and images that delight. Published frequently.

Matinee: 'Bill Brandt' Share This on LinkedIn   Share This on Google   Tweet This   Forward This

11 January 2014

Saturday matinees long ago let us escape from the ordinary world to the island of the Swiss Family Robinson or the mutinous decks of the Bounty. Why not, we thought, escape the usual fare here with Saturday matinees of our favorite photography films?

So we're pleased to present the fifteenth in our series of Saturday matinees today: Bill Brandt from the BBC series Master Photographers.

The poet of pictures, who died in 1983 (the year this 35-minute interview was broadcast), was a shy man. He rarely discussed his work, making this a special treat as he tells the story behind one image after another in a whisper.

Born in Germany of a British father and German mother, he worked with Man Ray for several months in Paris before moving to England in the 1930s, working as a photojournalist. His photographs of Halifax, miners in their homes, English maids at work and young people in the street document a pre-war world that no longer exists.

"All sorts of memories come back," he smiles as he goes through the images.

His night shots during the London blackouts, he remembers, were very long exposures, "sometimes twenty minutes." He shows us the image of a man who, through the war, slept in a coffin because it was safe there. What point would there be in bombing a cemetery?

His portraits, all assignments, were not posed. People forget about posing after a while, he says. He always photographed them in their own environment because it makes it more interesting and "it shows something of the person," he says simply.

Picasso was a particular challenge but Brandt laughs when he finishes telling the story. Giacometti was so sleepy he didn't think he could keep his eyes open very long and his portrait, consequently, is a closely cropped, droopy eyelid.

It's great fun to hear the stories behind these unusual but revealing portraits. Too small a room leads to a face poking in at the door. A particularly unphotogenic setting requires a mirror to frame the subject without his environment.

He acknowledges with some enthusiasm that it's very important to print your own pictures because so much changes about them in the darkroom.

In fact, he changed day into night there sometimes. His crops (like Giacometti's eyelid) are legendary. As are his tonal manipulations. The Victoria & Albert Museum has an interesting article on his technique that includes a few examples.

He may have been shy in person but he was ruthless in the darkroom.

In 1944 he acquired a 1931 Kodak crime scene camera with a very wide angle lens. The lens distorted closeups but held focus deep into the scene, inspiring him to look at the world in a new way.

But his focus is always on the world, never just the gear. He talks about his nudes resembling landscapes as if they were metaphors.

In his quiet way, in just a few simple words, Brandt reveals something about photography that is often forgotten in the din about all the technological advances of the last 20 years.

You can see it in every one of these pictures from the album of one artist who never blinked.

BackBack to Photo Corners