34.6 x 29.3cm image; 40.7 x 30.4cm sheet
‘It is part of the photographer’s job to see more intensely than most people do.’ Bill Brandt 1948 1
An odd mix of misfortune and luck brought Bill Brandt to the studio of Man Ray in Paris in 1929 and to the start of his photographic career. With little experience Brandt travelled widely, taking a diverse range of photographs, many of which are no longer extant, however reproductions in various journals including the surrealist magazine ‘Minotaure’ show a not uncommon interest in flea markets and mannequins. A move to England in 1931 meant a move into short-term obscurity, followed by a career in photojournalism in which Brandt chronicled Britain’s workforce, war, socialites, fashion models and artists. It was the nude female body as a site of desire and mystery that brought him artistic recognition. A contemporary of Brassaï, Brandt published a book of photographs, ‘A night in London’ 1938, reportedly inspired by Brassaï’s ‘Paris de nuit’ 1933.
His early, often highly staged nude photographs were taken for the men’s magazine ‘Lilliput’ and the models are often shown in domestic settings. Brandt’s series of ‘distortions’ turn the body into truncated, misformed, almost sculptural corporeal forms rather than ‘nudes’ and evoke Kertész’s distorted nudes from 1933. Brandt’s images, however, were not contorted by mirrors but by experiments in closing the aperture of the camera to almost a pinhole infinity, a trick he learnt by accident when he purchased a 19th-century camera with no shutter. ‘London’ shows the wide-angled affect on an acephalic body with wildly distorted arms that splay out of the torso in place of the head. Like many surrealist images of the female form, ‘London’ also truncates the body just below the waistline, denying its femininity just as the image denies the return gaze.
1. Johnson B ed 2004, ‘Photography speaks: 150 photographers on their art’, Aperture, New York p 246
© Art Gallery of New South Wales Photography Collection Handbook, 2007
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Works from the Photography Collection, Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney, 10 Feb 1989–15 May 1989
International Photographs from the Collection, Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney, 12 Jan 1991–14 Apr 1991
Photographs from the Collection, Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney, 30 Mar 1993–09 May 1993
The surreal aesthetic, Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney, 28 Jul 2007–14 Oct 2007