Born in Germany, Bill Brandt travelled widely in Europe before settling in London in 1932. He had been in contact with Man Ray in Paris before London, and been exposed to the ideas of the Surrealist movement.
His book ‘The English at Home’ was published in 1936 but largely ignored by the public at the time. The introduction, by Raymond Mortimer, described him as an anthropologist as well as an artist. He presented an outsider’s view of the English, adopting a detached, slightly sardonic view of the English as distinctly separate from his own background. The photographs were presented as pairs of images, each acting as a counterpoint to the other. These were presented in a way to act against the class-based society that was prevalent in Britain at the time. In this sense he looked at the English from a concerned, liberal viewpoint, but this was not popular view with the English themselves at the time. David Campany mentions how the interpretation of the book has changed over time and how it now seems like a picture of the insular English, unable to recognise their own image when they see it, sleepwalking into the nightmare of the second world war”.
In particular Campany discusses Brandt’s photograph ‘Parlourmaid and under-parlourmaid ready to serve dinner’. Although at the time it was just one of the images presented in ‘The English at Home’, it has performed several roles over time, including being used an index for all Brandt’s work. The image comprises a foreground of an upper class dinner table laid out ready to serve, with the two parlourmaids in the background. Their facial expressions, in particular that of the more senior of the two, provides much of the image’s reputation. Campany says of the Parlourmaid’s gaze that she “seems at first glance to express a stern resentment mixed with weariness and professional discipline”. It could almost be read as an expression of how much she despises the social circumstances that forces her into this position.
Campany then refers to a later photo essay that Brandt provided for Picture Post, showing images of the same parlourmaid – a woman named Pratt – in her day-to-day life. Campany describes how this provides a more nuanced view of her position than in the single image ‘Parlourmaid and under-parlourmaid ready to serve dinner’. In this essay she is shown to have a much greater degree of influence on her world than the first photograph suggests. Campany describes how this is a reflection of the changes in the English class-based society at the time, where a woman could now expect to achieve a higher degree of responsibility than previously. This ambivalence is also explained by Brandt’s own relationship to this world. Pratt was employed by Brandt’s uncle Henry, meaning he had ready access to the subjects. His images do however retain an outsider’s viewpoint with a high degree of objectivity.
Many of Brandt’s other images during this period show his influences from his time in Paris; in particular Brassaï’s ‘Paris de Nuit’. Brandt’s choice of lighting was clearly influenced by German expressionism, and demonstrated how he intended these as much as art as documents. Ian Jeffrey says of his work at this time “There was no point in strict authenticity, for the pictures were never meat as documents”. This combination of objectivity and artistic expression was also true of other photographers working at the time, in particular Walker Evans in his work for the Farm Security Administration in the USA. Evans and colleagues, along with earlier photographers such as Lewis Hine and Jacob Riis, were concerned with describing the inequality in society with a wish for betterment. Brandt’s work may not have shown exactly the same overt political tendency as Evans but his more detached view did still demonstrate a concern for his subjects. In Britain the publication of Picture Post provided a liberal, anti-fascist viewpoint that used photographs from a wide range of photographers.
It may be that this liberal, left-wing viewpoint, together with similar political inclinations in the FSA work, that helped install photography – and by extension B&W photography – as a trusted source of information.
David Campany ‘The Career of a Photographer, the Career of a Photograph – Bill Brandt’s Art of the Document’
Jeffrey, I. (2007) Bill Brandt (Photofile). (1st edition) (s.l.): Thames and Hudson Ltd.
Jeffrey, I. (1981) Photography: A Concise History (World of Art). (01 edition) (s.l.): Thames and Hudson Ltd.