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Bill Brandt (British, 1904-1983)


Also known as:  Brandt, Hermann Wilhelm

Birth Place: Hamburg (Hamburg state, Germany)

Bill Brandt was born in Germany in 1904. In 1918, at the age of 14 he painted the family home. Because of Nazism and being bullied after World War I, Brandt denounced his German background. He went so far as claiming London as his place of birth.

His interest in photography likely developed when he underwent tuberculosis treatment at a Davos, Switzerland sanatorium during the 1920’s. Dr. Eugenie Schwarzwald found a position for Brandt at a portrait studio in 1927. He met Man Ray through the good doctor, which proved to be a very valuable introduction.

For several months during 1930, Bill assisted Man Ray in Paris. Brandt learned about the poetic photography possibilities. The work of Eugene Afget served as a model for Mr. Brandt’s work. Most of Afget’s photographs were of old Paris. Brandt reworked a favorite Afget subject and titled it Flea Market Brandt. By that time, Man Ray and others saw Brandt as an accomplished photographer in his own right. In his early career, he experimented with night photography and angular modernist styles.

He met Eva Boros in his portrait studio in Vienna. They traveled together in continental Europe, and in 1932, the couple was married in Barcelona. Eva posed for Brandt as a nightwalker in Hamburg’s red light district. Night photography became a specialty of his. Friends and family played many roles in scenes from his social documentaries.

His greatest photographs were produced during the time he and Eva lived in North London’s Belsize Park. Brandt adopted Britain as his home, and it was the subject of much of his photography. Bill occasionally did photojournalist work for Weekly Illustrated and the News Chronicle, and he was more in demand when picture editor, Stefan Lorant, founded the Picture Post and Lilliput.

Family contacts helped Brandt gain access to various subjects. His published works contained pointed contrasts. The front cover of his first book presented the high life, and the back cover showed a poor family. In his introduction to Bill Brandt’s book, The English at Home, Raymond Mortimer praised Brandt for his fresh observations and acute contrasts he saw and photographed.

Brandt’s second book publication occurred in Paris and London in 1938. Brandt greatly admired Brassai, and he based the book on Brasssai’s Paris de Nuit. In the early 1940s, Bill Brandt experimented with photography of nudes. Having a brass and mahogany camera with a wide-angle lens allowed Brandt a decisive breakthrough in 1944. Brandt used friends, family, and professional models. Marjorie Beckett, a journalist, and Brandt’s second wife, modeled for his Campden Hill photographs.

Bill Brandt died in 1983. He was working on a show entitled Bill Brandt’s Literary Britain at the time. He was ill only a short time before his death. In 2004, the Victoria and Albert Museum displayed a show that was previously there in 1975 titled Bill Brandt: A Centenary Retrospective in the Exhibition of Galleries and Other Sides.

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