Bill Brandt

Eumenis Megalopoulos | Feb 17, 2024

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Hermann Wilhelm Brandt, better known as Bill Brandt (Hamburg, May 2, 1904 - London, December 20, 1983), was a British photographer.

Bill Brandt is the most distinguished of twentieth-century British photographers, although German by birth, later naturalized English. His output was multifaceted and he tackled genres such as reportage, portrait and landscape, as well as the nude for which he became famous.

He was born to wealthy parents: his father was descended from an English family; his mother, a German, was of Russian descent. He spent his childhood in Schleswig-Holstein. While still a boy he moved to Switzerland where he fell ill with tuberculosis and was admitted to the sanatorium in Davos, a place that saw famous writers and personalities spend long periods there, such as Robert Louis Stevenson, Thomas Mann and others, all for health reasons.

In 1927 he moved to Vienna. We do not know the reason, perhaps to join one of his three brothers, Rolf, where he worked as a graphic designer. Through his brother, he met Dr. Eugenie Schwarzwald (1872-1940), well known as a pedagogue who opened a famous boarding school for girls in which she invited artists such as Oskar Kokoschka, musicians such as Arnold Schönberg, architects such as Adolf Loos, writers such as Elias Canetti, Robert Musil, and Bertolt Brecht, to name a few, to teach. It was she who pushed young Brandt into photography by finding him employment at the studio of Greta Kolliner, a portrait painter and friend.

He met Ezra Pound, who helped him become Man Ray's assistant in Paris, where he stayed for three months and, although it did not enrich his technical background, he received a strong creative impulse from it and where he came into contact with Surrealist poetics, allowing himself to be influenced, as he wrote in the essay in the photographic volume Camera in London (1948), by Eugène Atget and the films of Luis Buñuel and Salvador Dalí, and their films Un chien andalou and L'âge d'or. Of this artistic current, Brandt will be especially fond of the psychoanalytic and metaphysical inspiration, and of the anti-bourgeois and more exquisitely Marxist inspiration for its drive for social justice, but more than anything else his horizon will be that of total freedom of creative expression. This is why he will not consider himself properly a photographer, but rather an artist.

In 1931, he first came to England, where he would later settle permanently. Although he studied the language extensively, he could not hide his German accent. At age 29, in 1933, he changed his name to Bill and disavowed his German past. The authoritarian and dictatorial turn of Nazism may have influenced this decision.

Strongly interested in social issues, in 1935 he published the photographic volume The English at Home, which will be of great importance to the author's career, although the publisher had to withdraw it due to criticism that it showed too explicitly the inequality of social classes.

In 1938 he published simultaneously in England and France the book A Night in London, hailed as a great success, as it was the English version of Brassaï's Paris by Night. At his disposal he had the technical means, new for the time, such as the flash, which he often used in combination with ambient light-whose experimentation, although dating back a century earlier, found its best application precisely in those years, that is, when magnesium flashes were able to be overcome-and the Rolleiflex, a bioptic SLR, which he chose because its handiness combined with a format suitable for cutting in print and for the careful darkroom work to which Brandt personally devoted himself.

Brandt became a photojournalist and journalist, often publishing his social research in major British magazines such as Lilliput, Picture Post and Weekly illustrated. His photographs would also be published in Harper's Bazaar. His social engagement was constant and appreciated: at the outbreak of World War II, on behalf of the British Ministry of Information, he documented the plight of Londoners during blackouts and inside shelters set up to cope with Nazi air raids.

In 1941, as a consequence of Nazi air raids on historic and artistic targets, the National Buildings Record was formed for the express purpose of gathering accurate documentation of architectural works liable to be destroyed or damaged, with a view to future restoration or reconstruction.Brandt was in practice hired to photographically document churches and cathedrals and some of the hardest hit places such as Bath.

During the 1940s, he also experimented with other areas of photography: portraits to artists and intellectuals and landscapes, for which, in those years, he shot an intense series of views laden with literary echoes, such as the dense "romantic" atmospheres reminiscent of the novels and poems of the Brontë Sisters and Thomas Hardy, which would appear in Lilliput magazine and in the volume Literary Britain in 1951.

In 1944 he bought a secondhand Kodak, equipped with a wide-angle lens, previously used by the police to photograph investigative surveys, allowed him, as he liked to say, to see the way through the eyes of a mouse, fish or fly. He began his adventure as a nude photographer with this camera, which he replaced with a Hasselblad in the 1960s. Bodies elongated and distorted by the use of wide-angle lenses, taken in natural settings such as the beaches of Normandy, later collected in the volume Perspective of Nudes, published in 1961 in London and New York, considered his masterpiece. Almost simultaneously he published the photographic anthology Shadow of Light.

Beginning in 1961 he had numerous awards and began exhibiting in prestigious spaces: in 1969, for example, he exhibited in the first retrospective at MOMA in New York, promoted and organized by Edward Steichen. In 1978 he was named "Royal Designer for Industry" by the Royal Society of Arts and, the following year, was awarded the Silver Progress Medal by the Royal Photographic Society.

His photographs became part of important collections, such as those of the Victoria and Albert Museum, MOMA, the George Eastman House, and the Bibliothèque nationale de France, which has the largest collection of his prints.

Long suffering from diabetes, his health deteriorated and, due to glaucoma, his eyesight also declined, preventing him from engaging in photography and printing his own work. Bill Brandt died in 1983. He had three wives by none of whom he had children. His ashes were scattered in Holland Park, where he loved to go for walks.


  1. Bill Brandt
  2. Bill Brandt
  3. ^ (EN) Schwarzwald, Eugenie (1872–1940), in Encyclopedia. URL consultato il 31 marzo 2018.
  4. Rosenblum, N. (2007). A world history of photography (en inglés) (4ª edición). Nueva York: Abbeville Press. pp. 364, 475, 486. ISBN 978-0-7892-0937-5.
  5. Martin Gasser, ‘Bill Brandt in Switzerland and Austria: Shadows of Life’, History of Photography (Winter 1997).
  6. Bieger-Thielemann, M. (2007). La fotografía del siglo XX. Museum Ludwig Colonia. Colonia: Taschen GmbH. p. 76. ISBN 978-3-8228-4082-5.
  7. St. Paul's in the Moonlight. En Free Times: Black, White, And Elusive. Publicado el 23 de agosto de 2008.
  8. (en) « Bill brandt (1904-1983) », sur via Wikiwix (consulté le 24 novembre 2023).
  9. Nicolas Villodre, « Bill Brandt, rétrospective à Madrid », sur Toutelaculture, 18 août 2021 (consulté le 24 octobre 2022)
  10. Kunstfoyer: Bill Brandt

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