I had never been a great fan of Bill Brandt. This was because I'd known him primarily through his nudes which I'd always found too abstract and inaccessible for my own taste. Mainly consisting of extreme closeups of the female anatomy, they were extremely intellectual studies from which all hints of sensuality had been vigorously banned. These black & white photos make up a substantial portion of the current exhibit Bill Brandt: Shadow and Light at MOMA, but there is much more to be seen here than just these.
Although Brandt worked as a photo assistant to Man Ray in Paris in 1930, I failed to see any direct Surrealist influence in his own work. There was one photo, though, Woman in Hamburg, St. Pauli (1933), that to me was heavily reminiscent of Brassai. Any such influence was lost, however, when Brandt emigrated to England and became the preeminent recorder of British society and its best known portraitist. Many of these are featured in the exhibit and are intriguing simply for the glimpses they give us of the famous. There is a wonderful portrait, for example, of Franco Zeffirelli (1962) in the days before his Romeo and Juliet launched him to worldwide fame. Likewise, Brandt's portrait Francis Bacon - Primrose Hill (1963), taken with a Superwide Hasselblad, is one of the best photos in the exhibit and perfectly captures the personality of the sculptor.
To me, Brandt's greatest achievement was his mastery of low light photography. The difficulty in preserving detail in the shadows makes this one of the most challenging forms of photography and Brandt excelled at it. There are a great number of these photos on display, many of them taken during the London blackouts in World War II. Perhaps the best is Hadrian's Wall (1943), a brilliant and evocative landscape. Others include the well known Bombed Regency Staircase, Upper Brook Street, Mayfair (1942), which serves as the exhibit's avatar, and another of a silhouetted St. Paul's. There are also examples of the documentary photos of the Underground bomb shelters, particularly the one at Liverpool Street Station, which Brandt was commissioned to take by the Ministry of Information in 1940.
Although the exhibit provides no technical details regarding Brandt's printing methods, the following statement is contained on the museum's website:
"Brandt’s work is unpredictable not only in the range of his subjects but also in his printing style, which varied widely throughout his career. This exhibition is the first to emphasize the beauty of Brandt’s finest prints, and to trace the arc of their evolution."
The exhibit continues through August 12, 2013.