MoMA’s new book Bill Brandt: Shadow and Light by Sarah Hermanson Meister, curator in the Department of Photography at MoMA, is a fresh look at the work of an iconic British photographer. The exhibition currently on view isn’t the first time MoMA has presented Bill Brandt’s work to the public—the last Brandt retrospective was in 1969. Since then, the Museum’s perspective of Brandt’s work has evolved into a more complete consideration of the nuances and variations in Brandt’s own photo-historical approach.
Brandt’s photography is traditionally presented in thematic groupings at the artist’s own request, but this view alone simplifies a body of work that is multifaceted and far-reaching in style, influence, and subject matter. Bill Brandt: Shadow and Light is the most comprehensive overview of Brandt’s work to date, and it attempts to create a coherent trajectory across five decades of his career.
Beyond the 160 tri-tone reproductions of his photographs, the book features a rich appendix that illuminates different aspects of Brandt’s oeuvre. A section on Brandt’s photo-stories from 1939 to 1945 reproduces spreads from the publications in which they originally appeared, and a detailed survey of his methods for retouching his photos is especially fascinating in today’s world of digital cameras, smart phones, and instant photo filters. Brandt often spoke about how important the retouching process was in his work, and by looking at the various tools and techniques he used to edit and perfect his final images, photo conservator Lee Ann Daffner’s illustrated glossary dives deep into Brandt’s working process. As discussed in a prior INSIDE/OUT post, Dating Brandt, the same negative can look completely different depending on when Brandt retouched it.
Though his influences, subject matter, and technical approach shifted over his long career, Brandt never lost what Meister describes as “his obvious delight in the uncanny aspects of the everyday.” Her introductory essay opens with a quote from Brandt on the role of a photographer:
I believe this power of seeing the world as fresh and strange lies hidden in every human being. In most of us it is dormant. Yet it is there, even if it is no more than a vague desire, an unsatisfied appetite that cannot discover its own nourishment….This should be the photographer’s aim, for this is the purpose that pictures fulfill in the world as it is to-day. To meet a need that people cannot or will not meet for themselves. We are most of us too busy, too worried, too intent on proving ourselves right, too obsessed with ideas, to stand and stare.
Bill Brandt took the time to “stand and stare” in many different ways. Whether through juxtapositions of class structure, wondrous nudes, inventive portraiture, or unearthly landscapes, Brandt’s far-reaching inspirations and approaches generated arresting imagery that still holds magic and wonder today.
For more on Brandt’s expansive career, preview a free PDF sample of the exhibition catalogue.