Exercise: Bill Brandt’s art of the document

Brief

Read ‘Bill Brandt’s Art of the Document’ by David Campany.

Write a short summary in your learning log. How did B&W become such a respected and trusted medium in documentary?

Response

Summary

Whilst the essay is a broad discussion on Brandt (1904-83) as both documentary photographer and art photographer, Campany uses one photograph, Parlourmaid and Under-parlourmaid Ready to Serve Dinner (1933) to underline his point, as “It is regarded as a milestone in documentary photography and a milestone in art photography” (Campany et al 2006: 51).

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Parlourmaid and Under-parlourmaid Ready to Serve Dinner,1933 – Bill Brandt

Brandt, half-German, had a semi-outsider’s view on Britain and perceived the prevailing class differences with a keen eye. His 1930s photos captured the last phase in British history where class differences were so highly visible, such as images of serving staff in rich homes. Brandt’s first book, The English at Home (1936) juxtaposed images of the wealthy and the working classes without any heavy social reform messages as he seemed to prefer that viewers should themselves come to the necessary conclusions about inequality.

The Parlourmaid… image is noteworthy as it depicts the lives of both the wealthy and the low-paid in the same frame. Campany notes that the tableware is sharper than the faces, and muses whether this selective focus is a subtle statement in itself (ibid: 60).

Brandt’s style evolved over his career but early images have been termed ‘poetic realism’. Brandt had an artist’s eye and sensibility and applied it to matters of social concern. One aspect of Brandt’s work that I found a little problematic was that his images were often staged using family and friends, so not ‘pure’ documentary (as in documenting what is already in existence) but rather a form of constructed documentary that speaks to higher ‘truths’ beyond a specific ‘real’ moment in time.

There’s a phrase in Campany’s essay that made me think that Martin Parr may be his modern-day equivalent, as different as their visual styles may be:

“In the thirties Brandt was drawn to the rituals and customs of daily life, to what he saw as the deeply unconscious ways in which people inhabit their social roles. For him, to photograph these minutiae was not simply to document but to estrange through a heightened sense of atmosphere, theatrical artifice and a dreamlike sensibility.” (ibid: 54)

Campany notes that Brandt’s forte was not the photo-essay, despite his work in the medium, but single images. His skill was in formal composition, distilling a scene down to its essence to maximise the message being transmitted to the viewer.

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A Snicket, Halifax (1937) – Bill Brandt

Another excellent example and personal favourite of mine is A Snicket, Halifax (1937), which is heavy with symbolism. The exaggerated darkness, the steep hill climb, the texture and sheen of the wet cobbles – they all speak of life as an uphill struggle, which one presumes was the lot of the lower working classes that he was studying at the time.

Brandt is known for his high contrast B&W work, but this preference for sacrificing the mid-tones and polarising the dark and light areas into more graphic forms was a later development, coming about as he produced (and reproduced) work in the 1960s. His single-mindedness of vision began to overshadow the original documentary subject matter.

The lingering impression is therefore not one of a documentary photographer per se, but of a visionary artist who happened to use documentary subject matter.

How did B&W become such a respected and trusted medium in documentary?

The two parts of the exercise are not as connected as implied in the brief. The essay does not address how B&W became a respected and trusted medium in documentary in anything approaching a direct manner – it is more concerned with the confluence of documentary photography and art photography.

I am increasingly finding a frustrating hollow at the core of this section of the course, with no real discussion of why B&W is used for documentary. Lots of discussion of how, but none on why. I have been thinking about this a lot recently and will address my thoughts in a separate blog post shortly.

How Brandt used B&W was interesting but why he used it is a simple question to answer; he used it as it was the prevalent technology.

Sources

Barson, T., Campany, D. and Morris, L. (eds.) (2006) Making History: Art and Documentary in Britain from 1929 to Now . Liverpool: Tate Publishing.

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