Bill Brandt: a brief overview

Bill Brandt born in 1904 was the son of a English father and German mother. He was brought up in Germany but made Britain his home. Conflicting in formation suggest he might have been born in England, but this more likely to have been something he said to distance himself from Germany.

As a young person Brandt contracted Tuberculosis as was sent to sanatorium in Davos, Switzerland in the 1920’s. He later went on to live in Vienna where a family friend introduced him to the America Poet Ezra Pound, through Pound he had an introduction to Man Ray. He subsequently spent time working for Man Ray in his Paris studio.This proved to be central to his development as a photographer. I would argue that a surrealist influence can be seen in his images, particular his nudes

In 1930 Brandt moved to Britain and remained here for the rest of his life. Brandt rejected his German background and as mentioned some biographies suggest that he was born in London and not Hamburg. In the 1983 BBC documentary Master photographers, the introduction suggests he was born in Britain.

Brandt worked as a photojournalist as well as an art photographer

Brandt’s work is almost exclusively Black and White and to my perhaps naïve eye falls into four broad categories.


His images of pre war Britain and wartime Britain and particularly , London and it residents form a unique record o this time. He also took many night-time images to me very much in the style of Brassai images of Paris. In the 1980’s TV documentary: masters of Photography he is compared to Brassai and Atget , with London being his subject in the same way Paris was theirs. Through his work for magazines such as the Picture Post and Lilliput he traveled around Britain documenting people and places. To me a hallmark of his work is very striking composition and the use of quite high contrast black and white.


Copyright Bill Brandt


Brandt photographed many famous people, some on assignment for magazines and some through personal persistence. In some of his portraits I think there is a real sense of his surrealist apprenticeship with Man Ray and his own development as an artist. The portrait below of actor Nichol Williams is a somewhat different approach to a portrait of an actor. By this I mean the use of a wide angle lens has produced quite an unflattering image, somewhat different to the agency images sometimes seen of actors, where the external and internal context are rooted in positive promotional presentation.

Brandt 1

Copyright Bill Brandt


Through his travels Brandt photographed many parts of the united Kingdom. In his very personal style he manages to record much about place. The example below taken on the Isle of Skye really captures the essence of the bleakness of the place. 


Copyright Bill Brandt


Brandt took a wide range of black and white nude images. Many of these again have what I believe to be a surrealist style and some, taken with very wide angle lens cameras make for very abstract nude images. Some of his nudes were taken outdoors on beaches, contrast between the subject and setting being a feature of the final images.


A further feature of Brandt’s work is his darkroom printing which he did himself, the to the 1983 documentary Master Photographers, he talks about this being central to the image making process. Like Ansel Adams, Brandt saw the printing process as vital in making a final image.

Brandt appears to me to be less known to the general public than figures like Cartier Bresson, Brassai and Atget. I know he is well known to photographers and people with an interest in photography, I am not sure how much he is known to the general public? This leads to some interesting questions about his German immigrant status in the Britain, how he was seen by the establishment and the coverage his work got in his lifetime.

Brandt used some focus free wide able cameras to create unusual perspectives and viewpoints and these cameras contributed to his unique viewpoint and vision.


Jay, W. (1999) Brandt-The Photography of Bill Brandt, Thames and Hudson, London

BBC Documentary (1983) Master Photographers- Bill Brandt found at: ( Accessed 26th November 2015)

Victoria and Albert Museum Biographical Note- Bill Brandt found at: ( Accessed 26th November 2015)


One thought on “Bill Brandt: a brief overview

  1. Pingback: Exercise 5.2 | John Adrian Orr

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