Bill Brandt was born on the 3rd of May, 1904 in Hamburg, Germany. He was the son of a British father and German mother and grew up during World War I; he later disowned his German heritage and would claim he was born in South London. Shortly after the war, he contracted tuberculosis and spent much of his youth in a sanatorium in Davos, Switzerland. He travelled to Vienna to undertake a course of treatment for tuberculosis by psychoanalysis. He was in any case pronounced cured and was taken under the wing of socialite Eugenie Schwarzwald. When Ezra Pound (an American expatriate poet and critic) visited the Schwarzwald residence, Brandt made his portrait. In appreciation, Pound allegedly offered Brandt an introduction to Man Ray, in whose Paris studio Brandt would assist in 1930.

In 1933 Brandt moved to London and began documenting all levels of British society. This kind of documentary was uncommon at that time. Brandt published two books showcasing this work, ‘The English at Home’ (1936) and ‘A Night in London’ (1938). He was a regular contributor to magazines such as Lilliput, Picture Post, and Harper’s Bazaar. He documented the Underground bomb shelters of London during The Blitz in 1940, commissioned by the Ministry of Information.

During World War II, Brandt focused every kind of subject – as can be seen in his ‘Camera in London’ (1948) but excelled in portraiture and landscape. To mark the arrival of peace in 1945 he began a celebrated series of nudes. In this period Brandt consistently used the Rolleiflex camera which emerged on the photographic scene along with Brandt in 1928. The camera’s ground-glass provided a clear view of the subject and the 2 1/4 x 2 1/4-inch negative gave Brandt the latitude he required for darkroom work. Brandt intensified or lightened his prints, cropped and retouched – sometimes drastically – and experimented tirelessly to achieve the veiled chiaroscuro tones typical of his photographs at this time. A second and distinct period of portrait photography began in the late 50’s. Brandt’s later portrait interpretations are expressed through the use of the Superwide Hasselblad. The 90 degree angle of the lens was exactly right for Brandt’s portrait interiors.

His major books from the post-war period are ‘Literary Britain’ (1951), and ‘Perspective of Nudes’ (1961), followed by a compilation of the best of all areas of his work, ‘Shadow of Light’ (1966). Brandt became Britain’s most influential and internationally admired photographer of the 20th century. Many of his works have important social commentary but also poetic resonance. His landscapes and nudes are dynamic, intense and powerful, often using wide-angle lenses and distortion.

My favourite images:

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