Hermann Wilhelm Brandt, better known as Bill Brandt (Hamburg, May 2, 1904 – London, December 20, 1983), was a British photographer.
Bill Brandt is the most illustrious of English photographers of the twentieth century, although German by birth, then naturalized English. His production has been multifaceted and has dealt with genres such as reportage, portrait and landscape, as well as the nude for which he became famous.
He was born from well-to-do parents: his father was descended from an English family, his mother, German, had Russian origins. He spent his childhood in Schleswig-Holstein. While still a boy he moved to Switzerland where he fell ill with tuberculosis and was hospitalized in the sanatorium in Davos, a place that saw writers and celebrities spend long periods there, such as Robert Louis Stevenson, Thomas Mann and others, all for health reasons.
In 1927 he moved to Vienna. We do not know the reason, perhaps to join one of his three brothers, Rolf, where he worked as a graphic designer. Thanks to his brother he met Dr. Eugenie Schwarzwald (1872-1940), well known as a pedagogue who opened a famous boarding school for girls in which she invited to teach artists such as Oskar Kokoschka, musicians such as Arnold Schönberg, architects such as Adolf Loos, writers such as Elias Canetti, Robert Musil, Bertolt Brecht, just to name a few. It was she who encouraged the young Brandt to devote himself to photography by finding him a job at the studio of Greta Kolliner, a portrait painter and friend.
He met Ezra Pound, who helped him to become Man Ray”s assistant in Paris, where he stayed three months and, although he did not enrich his technical background, he received a strong creative impulse and where he came into contact with Surrealist poetics, letting himself be influenced, as he wrote in the essay of the photographic volume Camera in London (1948), by Eugène Atget and by the films of Luis Buñuel and Salvador Dalí, and their films Un chien andalou and L”âge d”or. Of this artistic current, Brandt will be especially fond of the psychoanalytic and metaphysical inspiration, and of the anti-bourgeois and more exquisitely Marxist one for its drive towards social justice, but more than anything else his horizon will be that of total freedom of creative expression. For this reason he will not consider himself properly a photographer, but an artist.
In 1931, for the first time, he came to England, where he later settled permanently. Although he studied the language extensively, he was unable to hide his German accent. At the age of 29, in 1933, he changed his name to Bill and disowned his German past. In this decision could have influenced the authoritarian and dictatorial turn of Nazism.
Strongly interested in social issues, in 1935 he published the photographic volume The English at Home, which will have great importance for the author in his career, although the publisher had to withdraw it due to criticism, as it showed too explicitly the inequality of social classes.
In 1938 he published simultaneously in England and France the book A night in London, hailed as a great success, as if it were the English version of Brassaï”s Paris by Night. At his disposal he had the technical means, new for the time, such as the flash, which he often used in combination with ambient light – the experimentation of which, even though it dated back to a century earlier, found its best application in those years, when magnesium flashes were overcome – and the Rolleiflex, a bioptic reflex camera that he chose because it was easy to handle and had a format suitable for printing cuts and for the accurate work of the darkroom to which Brandt dedicated himself.
Brandt became a photojournalist and journalist, often publishing his social research in major British magazines such as Lilliput, Picture Post and Weekly Illustrated. His photographs were also published in Harper”s Bazaar. His social commitment was constant and appreciated: at the outbreak of World War II, on behalf of the British Ministry of Information, he documented the plight of Londoners during the blackouts and within the shelters prepared to cope with the air raids of the Nazis.
In 1941, as a consequence of Nazi air raids on historical and artistic targets, the National Buildings Record was set up with the precise aim of collecting accurate documentation of architectural works liable to be destroyed or damaged, with a view to future restoration or reconstruction: Brandt was in practice hired to photographically document churches and cathedrals and some of the most affected places such as Bath.
During the 1940s he also experimented with other areas of photography: portraits of artists and intellectuals and landscapes, for which, in those years, he shot an intense series of views full of literary echoes, such as the dense “romantic” atmospheres that recall the novels and poems of the Brontë Sisters and Thomas Hardy, which were published in Lilliput magazine and in the volume Literary Britain in 1951.
In 1944 he bought a second-hand Kodak, equipped with a wide-angle lens, previously used by the police to photograph investigative surveys, it allowed him, as he liked to say, to see the world through the eyes of a mouse, a fish or a fly. It was with this camera, which in the ”60s he replaced with a Hasselblad, that he began his adventure as a photographer of nudes. Bodies elongated and distorted by the use of wide-angle lenses, taken in natural settings such as the beaches of Normandy, then collected in the volume Perspective of Nudes, published in 1961 in London and New York, considered his masterpiece. Almost simultaneously published the photographic anthology Shadow of Light.
Since 1961 he had numerous awards and began to exhibit in prestigious spaces: in 1969, for example, exhibited in the first retrospective at MOMA in New York, promoted and organized by Edward Steichen. In 1978 he was named “Royal Designer for Industry” by the Royal Society of Arts and, the following year, was awarded the Silver Progress Medal by the Royal Photographic Society.
His photographs became part of important collections, such as those of the Victoria and Albert Museum, the MOMA, the George Eastman House, the Bibliothèque nationale de France, which has the largest collection of his prints.
Suffering from diabetes for some time, his health deteriorated and, due to glaucoma, his eyesight also declined, preventing him from devoting himself to photography and printing his own work.Bill Brandt died in 1983. He had three wives by none of whom he had children. His ashes were scattered in Holland Park, where he loved to go for walks.