Much can be said for happenstance.
It must have been 1965, and by some fluke a bullet of formation, someone or something gave me to find Bill Brandt’s work. The long slope of the London hills with their dark lone path, Sisyphean in their implication, save for the light over the horizon, that gleam from the north, an opening not an end.
In 1962 in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, at a college that I attended for two months, my only experience in pursuing academic higher learning. The home at that time of Quaker Oats with its factories and holding bins, up long hills off facing the sky I photographed a very different place, in much the same way. I, like Brandt was misplaced and alone, like Brandt there was a gleam, I would go on. Later, his images of workers with their drama, and his kindness, caught my eye again. Previous to seeing them, I was also photographing soul brothers and sisters of the underclass with all of the spunk and dignity that gleamed from within. Then, before seeing his work of the upper class, I was tuning into the tony denizens of the Peppermint Lounge at the outburst of Chubby Checker’s twist. Each time I saw Brandt’s much more mature work, I was amazed, magnetized by his clarity and power and by his ability to dramatize and penetrate, to go though the artifice and see and feel the soul of the people within the images, and of the man who was making them. Naturally, I began to purchase his books, a bargain at 75 cents on the avenue; A Night in London, Camera in London, and then the bigger and more artful volumes of Shadow of Light, Portraits, and Perspective of Nudes. Each step of the way he had ‘’beaten’’ me to the subject matter that had become my own, and did it with such a different authority that it stimulated me to move on and get better. Not better than him, but just better. We were partisans in a struggle for humanity, or so I thought. So I learned all I could about the man through his pictures, never once taking up the pursuit of finding out about the man.
Metaphorically speaking, the day before yesterday the excellent curator Sarah Hermanson Meister assembled a comprehensive exhibit at MoMA, still on the walls as I am writing, and talked about the man and his process along with showing many of his classic images, many never seen before. And the day after yesterday, I was asked to write a piece on him and his work by this magazine. I was honored and I pledged to invent some sort of strategy that could further add to what had been done before. The following is what you have: my small attempt to add to the vision of my hero. A hero amongst many, but possibly the most important, if only for doing what I have been doing all of my photographic life, but a step before me and in a very different way. Time has held all of us as brothers and sisters in a pursuit of our personal origin, and how it applies to the world as a place to wander, to care, and to be in perpetual wonder. Living with some degree of whimsy and often latent dread.
CONSIDERING BILL BRANDT
Climbing those dark stairs into a troubled and quaking sky, we begin to walk the path of miracles. In Bill Brandt’s work, there is ever a moment of dread, never closure. There is always forever an opening of the sky, so that even through the darkness there is escape, if only through the imagination.
Brandt’s work was his life, and his life as stated was to be in “a perpetual state of wonder, to see all things as fresh and to invent anew” (Bill Brandt). Life was strange and mysterious, without sure definition. His camera was but a tool searching for balance in this world of sensitized impermanence.
By his later life, with a camera of unknown precision, a massive wide angle which informed and unformed the rigor of convention, he stated that “he wanted to see like a mouse, a fish, or a fly”. Notwithstanding that he was influenced by Orson Welles’s masterpiece “Citizen Kane” with its harrowing angles and dark twists and turns. Brandt’s animism of the late nudes had indeed the sense of crawling up a leg, entering the overawed eye, hearing the thunder of the mountains as sensed by the inner ear.
Before that there were the mysteries of a secret inner life, a life that was comprised of illness and solitude (he had entered a sanatorium at the age of 16 and stayed until he was 22). Tuberculosis was rampant after the First World War and he joined with many trying to rid themselves of the disease. As such, he developed a deep relationship with forces of which he had no power over.
It was said that this perception may have started while under the influence of his wealthy and dominant father, an English man married to a German woman. Both families were from the banking and merchant class, giving Brandt a permanent state of income throughout his life along with a disdain for anything German and an organic feeling of repulsion at the abuses of noble power.
Possibly his dearest early relationships were with his nannies and servants who worked for his family. All of the images of servants were indeed quasi documents of intimates, manipulated to his taste and drama. Brandt’s relationship to journalistic ethics was not at all an issue. He first served the goal of his inner world, and that goal was to make a picture that allowed him the liberty of his own peculiar truth.
“He was a man who lived with secrets and needed them” (Delaney). This condition may have fueled and informed the fact that he kindled. He kept to flame three women, two of which he married. They served as confidants and subjects of his images. Marjorie, his second wife, cooked and cared for him, as he had contracted diabetes (she tolerated the other women; in fact, they all were friends). She was elegant and very English. Brandt tried to obscure the fact of his German-ness (the earlier repulsion was amplified times infinity by the horrific march of the Reich in the Second World War). Sometimes he did not speak for fear that his accent might be detected. “He was a quiet man whose voice was as soft as a moth and had the gentlest manner outside of the nunnery” (Hopkinson).
The condition of having secrets certainly affected much of his portraiture of public intellectuals and artists whose pictures emanated an empathetic but dark mystery, suggesting that they were unknowable. It was said that Brandt’s portraits showed people on the way to death row. (I interpret that as a relationship with destiny.) Nevertheless, he was in great demand and the cognoscenti clamored for his attention.
For my eye, his shapes and forms, which were expressed in his mature years with the work Perspective of Nudes, were there from the very beginning, evident if one gazes at the positive and negative spaces that construct his pictures. Early pictures of workers, of birds, of society, of the spectators at the races—you can see the organic abstraction that he was drawn to. That he was in legion with the Surrealists and the Cubists and the Constructivists was natural, since he was one of them before they knew him. He was an invention of his time, and he invented to his persuasion the language that the time required. He was fueled by kindness, passion, imagination, and intelligence,and the fire that was his own lives on for right now. He rules the heart of the eye, and through him we wander, mesmerized, and wonder anew.