I went to the Bill Brandt retrospective at the V&A on Saturday. It was an interesting experience; I think the last photography exhibition I went to was the Ansel Adams/William Egglestone pairing at the Hayward, which was fantastic.
This, as I said, was interesting; mainly because it showed the fascinating development of Brandt as a photographer. Above everything else, brandt is a master of composition. At times, his developing is a little weak (though that may be down to print decomposition), giving otherwise great images a grey cast; this is something he improves on later. But throughout all his images, from his early staged-documentaries, through his landscape work, to his portraits, it’s the composition that shines through. I think this is partly down to the strong influence of the Surrealists on him. Even when taking landscape shots for Lilliput and Vogue, that surreal influence is somewhere in the image. As he’s given freer reign, and he develops as an artist, he becomes less constrained; one of my favourites in his nude sequence is the image right – just an ear, and a beach, but with the bizarre proportions his ultra-wide angle lenses constrain the image into.
His portraits are unusual – as much an analysis of setting and scene as of the subject. You often get the feeling that Brandt’s subjects are trying to hide from the camera, shying away, and that Brandt simply works around this. He’s more interested in forms. The exhibition placed his famous nude sequences towards the end, and it demonstrated how perfect a culmination they are: a culmination of the photographer’s appreciation for form, light, and the female figure.
Even though some of his early work is hit and miss, the hits really score. Brandt loves light as another aspect of form – the shapes light produces, the way it influence representation. His blackout pictures, shot by moonlight, are wonderful examples of this. Similarly, his Jarrow landscapes, harsh and dark-grey are lightened not by shade but by form – clouds overhead, coal-piles, smoke from a chimney stack. His shots of eyes are Escher-like in their fascination with form. He’s less interested in the subject in in the surface of their skin. Or, perhaps, he’s just as interested in the subject, but just feels that this is all you need to know. Looking into the eye, into the eyelid, the skin around the socket, is looking into the soul. Maybe.
Of all the pictures of Brandt’s I found online, this portrait of Francis Bacon perhaps sums his work up best for me. Yes, it’s not one of the marvellous nudes, but this represents the various angles of his work best. It features the fascination with form – the trees on the skyline, Bacon offcenter, the sky dodged into blurry smudges, and the path just hinting at texture. It features the surreal angle – the subject seemingly disinterested, the lamppost at an angle that seems unrealistic. His command of the camera has matured, developed – look at the developing of Bacon’s face. And yet somehow, the whole thing works far better as a portrait of Bacon than him just sitting, staring at the camera. It captures the subject not only in the representation of the man, but the landscape around him.
Writing that, I seem surprisingly enthusiastic. Initially, Brandt’s sloppy developing, formulaic composition, seems unremarkable. But as his skill and experience progresses, he develops in an unexpected direction. It’s a great exhibition – thoughtfully laid out, even if the photos are a little too close together – and provides a wonderful cross-section of Brandt’s work.