“I am not interested in rules and conventions … photography is not a sport. If I think a picture will look better brilliantly lit, I use lights, or even flash.”
By Bill Brandt, First published in Camera in London, 1948
I had the good fortune to start my career in Paris in 1929. For any young photographer at that time, Paris was the centre of the world. Those were the exciting early days when the French poets and surrealists recognised the possibilities of photography.
There were the surrealist publications, Bifui, Varietes Minotaure and others, the first magazines to choose photographs for their poetic quality. There were the surrealist films such as Bunuel’s notorious Le Chien Andalou and L’Age d’ Or, which had a strong effect on photography. One could say that it was now that modern photography was born.
Atget’s work was at last being published. He had died almost unrecognised, two years before. Brassai, Kertesz and Cartier-Bresson were all working in Paris, as well as Man Ray. Man Ray, the most original photographer of them all, had just invented the new techniques of rayographs and solarisation. I was a pupil in his studio, and leamed much from his experiments.
Dylan Thomas, 1941
“Towards the end of the war, my style changed completely. I have often been asked why this happened. I think I gradually lost my enthusiasm for reportage. Documentary photography had become fashionable. Everybody was doing it.”
Looking back now, one can see that already two trends were emerging: the poetic school, of which Man Ray and Edward Weston were the leaders, and the documentary moment-of-truth school. I was attracted by both, but when I returned to England in 1931, and for over ten years thereafter, I concentrated entirely on documentary work.
The extreme social contrast during those years before the war was, visually, very inspiring for me. I started by photographing in London, the West End, the suburbs, the slums. I photographed everything that went on inside the large houses of wealthy families, the servants in the kitchen, formidable parlourmaids laying elaborate dinner tables, and preparing baths for the family; cocktail-parties in the garden and guests talking and playing bridge in the drawing rooms: a working-class family’s home, with several children asleep in one bed, and the mother knitting in a comer of the room. I photographed pubs, common lodging-houses at night, theatres, Turkish baths, prisons and people in their bedrooms.
London has changed so much that some of these pictures have now the period charm almost of another century. After several years of working in London, I went to the north of England and photographed the coal-miners during the industrial depression.
My most successful picture of the series, probably because it was symbolic of this time of mass unemployment, was a loose-coal searcher in East Durham, going home in the evening. He was pushing his bicycle along a footpath through a desolate waste-land between Hebburn and Jarrow. Loaded on the crossbar was a sack of small coal, all that he had found after a day’s search on the slag-heaps. I also photographed the Northern towns and interiors of miners’ cottages, with families having their evening meal, or the miners washing themselves in tin-baths, in front of their kitchen fires.
Ezra Pound, 1928
“I always take portraits in my sitter’s own surroundings. I concentrate very much on the picture as a whole and leave the sitter rather to himself. I hardly talk and barely look at him.”
Towards the end of the war, my style changed completely. I have often been asked why this happened. I think I gradually lost my enthusiasm for reportage. Documentary photography had become fashionable. Everybody was doing it. Besides, my main theme of the past few years had disappeared; England was no longer a country of marked social contrast. Whatever the reason, the poetic trend of photography, which had already excited me in my early Paris days, began to fascinate me again. it seemed to me that there were wide fields still unexplored. I began to photograph nudes, portraits, and landscapes.
To be able to take pictures of a landscape I have to become obsessed with a particular scene. Sometimes I feel that I have been to a place long ago, and must try to recapture what I remember. When I have found a landscape which I want to photograph, I wait for the right season, the right weather, and right time of day or night, to get the picture which I know to be there.
One of my favourite pictures of this time is Top Withens on the Yorkshire Moors. I was then trying to photograph the country which had inspired Emily Bronte. I went to the West Riding in summer, but there were tourists and it seemed quite the wrong time of the year. I liked it better, misty, rainy and lonely in November. But I was not satisfied until I saw it again in February. I took the picture just after a hailstorm when a high wind was blowing over the moors.
Another picture of that period is the Gull’s Nest in Skye. I had discovered the eggs one sunny afternoon, but as the light was then too flat and the nest looked too pretty for this very wild part of the island, I decided to come back in the evening. It was almost midsummer-night and the pale green twilight started rather late. When I approached the nest on an isolated outpost of rocks, an enormously large gull which had been sitting on the eggs, flew off and circled low around my head, barking like a dog. It was windstill, the mountains of the Scottish mainland were reflected in the sea – the light was now just right for the picture.
Coal Searcher Returning Home, Jarrow, 1936-1937
I always take portraits in my sitter’s own surroundings. I concentrate very much on the picture as a whole and leave the sitter rather to himself. I hardly talk and barely look at him. This often seems to make people forget what is going on and any affected or self-conscious expression usually disappears. I try to avoid the fleeting expression and vivacity of a snapshot. A composed expression seems to have a more profound likeness. I think a good portrait ought to tell something of the subject’s past and suggest something of his future.
Most frequently reproduced of all my photographs, is the Portrait of a Young Girl resting on the floor of her London room. Perhaps it is not really a portrait. Her face fills the foreground and beyond the profile stands a chair and a chest of drawers; seen through two windows are houses on the other side of the street. This picture may have been subconsciously inspired by Orson Welles’ film Citizen Kane. The technique of this film had a definite influence on my work at the time when I was starting to photograph nudes.
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Feeling frustrated by modern cameras and lenses which seemed designed to imitate human vision and conventional sight, I was looking everywhere for a camera with a very wide angle. One day in a secondhand shop, near Covent Garden, I found a 70-year-old wooden Kodak. I was delighted. Like nineteenth-century cameras it had no shutter, and the wide-angle lens, with an aperture as minute as a pinhole, was focused on infinity.
In 1926, Edward Weston wrote in his diary, ” The camera sees more than the eye, so why not make use of it ? ” My new camera saw more and it saw differently. It created a great illusion of space, an unrealistically steep perspective, and it distorted.
Francis Bacon, 1963
When I began to photograph nudes, I let myself be guided by this camera, and instead of photographing what I saw, I photographed what the camera was seeing. I interfered very little, and the lens produced anatomical images and shapes which my eyes had never observed.
I felt that I understood what Orson Welles meant when he said ‘the camera is much more than a recording apparatus. It is a medium via which messages reach us from another world’. For over fifteen years I was now preoccupied with photographing nudes. I learned very much from my old Kodak. It taught me how to use acute distortion to convey the weight of a body or the lightness of a movement. In the end, it had also taught me how to use modem cameras in an unorthodox way, and for the last chapter of my book Perspective of Nudes which was published in 1961, I discarded the Kodak altogether.
These last pictures are close-ups of parts of the body, photographed in the open air, I saw knees and elbows, legs and fists as rocks and pebbles which blended with cliffs and became an imaginary landscape.
When young photographers come to show me their work, they often tell me proudly that they follow all the fashionable rules. They never use electric lamps or flashlight; they never crop a picture in the darkroom, but print from an untrimmed negative; they snap their model while walking about the room.
I am not interested in rules and conventions … photography is not a sport. If I think a picture will look better brilliantly lit, I use lights, or even flash. It is the result that counts, no matter how it was achieved. I find the darkroom work most important, as I can finish the composition of a picture only under the enlarger. I do not understand why this is supposed to interfere with the truth. Photographers should follow their own judgment, and not the fads and dictates of others.
“Photography is still a very new medium and everything is allowed and everything should be tried.”
Photography is still a very new medium and everything is allowed and everything should be tried. And there are certainly no rules about the printing of a picture. Before 1951, I liked my prints dark and muddy. Now I prefer the very contrasting black-and-white effect. It looks crisper, more dramatic and very different from colour photographs.
It is essential for the photographer to know the effect of his lenses. The lens is his eye, and it makes or ruins his pictures. A feeling for composition is a great asset. I think it is very much a matter of instinct. It can perhaps be developed, but I doubt it can be learned. However, to achieve his best work, the young photographer must discover what really excites him visually. He must discover his own world.
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(Original text by Bill Brandt, All rights reserved Bill Brandt © Bill Brandt Archive Ltd.)