Exercise 2-3: Bill Brandt’s Art of the Document 

Read ‘Bill Brandt’s art of the documentary’ by David Campany and write a short summary. How did B&W become such a respected and trusted medium in documentary? 

Campany references Bill Brandt’s 1933 photograph, ‘Parlourmaid and Under-parlourmaid Ready to Serve Dinner’, aka, ‘Dinner is served’ (from his first book ‘The English at Home’ (1936) a survey of the British social classes) as an image that has become synonymous with all of Brandt’s work as well as “a milestone in documentary photography and a milestone in art photography…[and] seen as an illustration of life in the 1930s.” The image is praised as unusual in that it does not rely on juxtaposition with accompanying photographs to make a comment upon class, rather, it achieves this by displaying tensions within the frame. Nigel Henderson’s reading of the image is quoted: “the two house parlourmaids, prepared to wait at table have eyes like blunderbusses. Their starched caps and cuffs, their poker backs, mirror the terrible rectitude of learned attitudes.” There is stern resentment, weariness and professional discipline evident and mixed with a kind of blankness: “this is an image of pairings. Its economy of form and content forces us to see in opposites, tapping into and reinforcing a general understanding of the social structures of class and service.” 

The story of the changing view of the importance of ‘The English at Home’ is a representation in microcosm of the changing value of documentary photography itself. At the time of publication, the book made little impact and was remaindered, in 1978, Brandt noted that a second hand damaged edition was for sale for $500. Brandt’s work is described as a mixture of “art and anthropology” at the heart of which is something Campany describes as ‘poetic realism’: “well-established visual devices, clichés even, that flattered the viewer with pictorial artfulness as a means to convince them of the social authority of the imagery.” The success of Brandt’s images is explained in a number of ways – he was an outsider, a German, viewing British life and customs, (similar claims are made as to why Robert Frank’s ‘The Americans’ is so successful) he was influenced by surrealism rather than social reform, he was interested in capturing the “rituals and customs of daily life” and the behaviour of his subjects which he viewed as “passive autonomism.” The work of Brandt is linked to the work of Henri Cartier-Bresson and Walker Evans, like Brandt’s, their work has increased in art value since it was originally made, however, the three photographers also share the commonality that it is their single images, the, “‘decisive moments’ of pictorial geometry and poetic expression” that have stood the test of time rather than the extended photo essays.

Why B&W has become a respected and trusted medium in documentary 

Campany does not overtly reference the association with black and white and connotations of trust in documentary. Discussing the aesthetic qualities of ‘Parlourmaid and Under-parlourmaid Ready to Serve Dinner’/‘Dinner is served’ (1933) and ‘Regency Homes in Mayfair’, the similarities in form are referenced, “cluttered foregrounds, flattened vertical backgrounds and bold interplay of black and white shapes.” Brandt’s later move towards a more overt, art photography aesthetic, when he began to print his photographs much more harshly with “modish blocks of black and white” resulting in a more expressionistic style is mentioned, but this is in the context of Brandt’s changing position as from reportage to art photographer. Although Brandt’s interests and approach changed during his career, the one constant throughout was his use of black and white. Does this mean that his later work such as his nude portraits has documentary value simply because of this aesthetic choice? It is an accepted that black and white is the classic language of serious photography, but, this could be for a number of reasons – black and white was the widely used format during what we could term the ‘golden age of documentary’ and the many images that have become known as ‘important’ from this time are so because of the subject matter rather than this – undoubtedly though, black and white is imbued with connotations of increased truth. The emergence of colour as the accepted mode of photography is linked to the photography’s acceptance into the art gallery context – the subject matter at this time also changed to a more subjective, personal approach so it is natural the earlier, more objective, style can be read as being closer to a truthful representation, even if these connotations are purely false and based on convention.

Bibliography: 

Campany, D. (2006) The career of a photographer, the career of a photograph: Bill Brandt’s art of the document.

Pps 51-61: Barson, T, et al. (2006) Making History: Art and Documentary in Britain from 1929 to now. London: Tate Publishing.

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