One of the underlying principles of Bill Brandt: Shadow and Light, currently on view in MoMA’s third-floor Photography Galleries, is the importance of vintage prints to understanding Brandt’s oeuvre—and by vintage print I mean a photographic print that was made around the same time as its negative. Anyone who visits the exhibition will surely be impressed by the fine quality of prints (in addition to the arresting and often strange imagery). Dating and gathering these works, however, was no easy feat and proved to be one of my greatest learning experiences while working on the exhibition.
By the time I joined the Department of Photography last June, much of the labor to locate vintage works had been done: over the past seven years the Museum had worked tirelessly to acquire dozens of the best prints, and Sarah Meister had traveled extensively to view photographs in institutional and private collections. Many of these prints were dated using good old fashioned connoisseurship (critical judgments based on expertise knowledge of criteria such as style, paper type, markings, etc.) and provenance (the chronology of ownership of an object). However, for some of the works, it proved more difficult to verify or estimate the print dates, particularly because Brandt would often reprint from older negatives.
As Sarah Meister discusses in her essay for the catalog, Brandt’s “brooding, atmospheric prints” from the 1930s (Soho Bedroom, 1934) eventually gave way to prints with higher contrast and graininess by the 1950s (Harold Pinter, Battersea, London, 1961), which was perhaps a result of his work with magazines and newspapers as well as his changing artistic sensibility after World War II. To complicate matters, Brandt reprinted many of his earlier images in this new style, especially once he became represented by the Marlborough Gallery in the 1970s. The exhibition carefully demonstrates these differences and changes.
For prints of unknown dates, we turned to Lee Ann Daffner, Andrew W. Mellon Foundation Conservator of Photographs, for help. Lee Ann, who also wrote an illustrated glossary on Brandt’s retouching techniques, recommended we view the works under ultraviolet illumination to check for the presence of Optical Brightening Agents (OBAs). OBAs are dyes used to make paper, and other materials, appear whiter or brighter, and are widely thought to have been introduced into the paper industry between 1950 and 1955. If OBAs are present, then the prints fluoresce a distinctive bluish-white glow. We began testing both those where the print date is known and those we hoped to identify. For example, Coal-Searcher Going Home to Jarrow, a photograph that Brandt made during his trip to Northern England in 1937, was acquired by MoMA in 1973 and did not have a known print date. When examined under U.V. illumination in a darkened room (using scientific grade U.V. protective goggles), the print fluoresced, suggesting that Brandt likely made the print sometime after 1955.
There are a handful of later prints included on the walls accompanied by approximate print date, and I would encourage viewers to pay attention to the labels and text. In fact, the exhibition insists that we look closely at these changes in printing style and the differences between vintage and non vintage prints—one wall by the Nudes even includes three prints made from the same negative (London, 1952) that illustrate these differences. In doing so, it makes a significant scholarly contribution as well as allows viewers—even an academically-trained scholar like me—to become better connoisseurs.
Bill Brandt: Shadow and Light is on view now through August 12, 2013. The accompanying exhibition catalogue is available for purchase here.