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Bill Brandt

Bill Brandt (1904–83) preferred to rely on ‘camera vision’ rather than his own subjective vision:

Instead of photographing what I saw, I photographed what the camera was seeing. I interfered very little, and the lens produced anatomical images and shapes which my eyes had never observed.

(OCA, Expressing Your Vision, p95)

I wanted to understand more of Bill Brandt’s creative vision and was thankful to discover Adam’s documentary on Brandt available on YouTube. I find it much more valuable to hear an artist’s own words and explanations than the interpretation of a critic.

Brandt’s images contain striking contrasts and he does not shy away from including significant areas of shadow, drawing the eye into what he wants to stand out in his prints and emphasising line through contrasts. Brandt tells us that ‘it is very important to develop his own work’ and how he ‘completely changes a photography in the darkroom’. For the image of Francis Bacon, Brandt talked about how he darkened the sky in the darkroom.

Screen Shot 2015-07-19 at 17.22.06

During the documentary Brandt mentions several times that he takes photographs ‘intuitively’ and that they ‘are not planned’. He always takes images of people in their own environment. In the V&A biography, he is quoted on portraits:

I always take portraits in my sitter’s own surroundings. I concentrate very much on the picture as a whole and leave the sitter rather to himself. I hardly talk and barely look at him.

When asked during the documentary how he creates the ‘unposed look’, Brandt simply explains that eventually people forget he is there. He is also surprised when the interviewer points out that the subjects are never in the centre of the frame – Brandt seems to have not examined this (he rarely looks at his own photos), which supports his comment about working intuitively.

During the documentary Brandt also talks about his use of a wide-angle lens in portraiture (particularly nudes) to distort the image and include a depth of background as context. The image below is one such photo, which he describes in the documentary as his favourite, and illustrates beautifully Brandt’s vision.

Screen Shot 2015-07-19 at 17.53.34

Every time I look at the work of famous photographers from the last century, I feel that we have lost something in the digital age – often lacking the character and crafted feel of the ‘old masters’. Digital images and digital processing can leave photos looking machine-made, somehow lacking art. Of course, it doesn’t have to be that way, but a drive for sharpness and detail can result in clinical, sterile images.

Thank you Bill Brandt for your inspirational images and immense modesty!


Adam P, producer (1983). Bill Brandt BBC Master Photographers. Available from: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=o3KuY0quBsk [accessed 19.7.15]

V&A museum [online]. Bill Brandt Biography. http://www.vam.ac.uk/content/articles/b/bill-brandt-biography/ [accessed 19.7.15]


The Bill Brandt Archive [online]. Available at: http://www.billbrandt.com. [accessed 19.7.15]

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