Fiercely Black and White
BILL BRANDT: PHOTOGRAPHS 1928-1983. Edited with an introduction by Ian Jeffrey. Thames and Hudson. 192 pp., $24.95
IT isn't easy to imagine the work of British photographer Bill Brandt in color. His images sear into the visual memory because of an intense, compelling black. This darkness is a force. It does not rule out half tones, or textures, but it often gains in contrast with brilliant whites that shine, flash, or dazzle in close proximity to the impenetrable blackness. The effect is not showy, however, but vividly expressive.
Brandt's portrait of poet and playwright T.S. Eliot silhouettes the figure against the hard, spare light of the window. This predominant, bare whiteness is delineated only by the vertical and horizontal window bars, like the severe restraint of a painting by Mondrian, and even the geometry of these dividers is disrupted by the bleeding of the light over their edges. Yet all this whiteness serves to intensify the outline and mass of the figure itself.
IN this photo, Eliot is, perhaps, figure first, individual second. Instead of being exposed to the viewer, with his visage lit frontally in an attempt to lay bare his psyche, he is hidden in the dark. He stares as if he is trying to pierce through the blackness into which he is cast.
We search for his frowning eyes and thin mouth line; we peer into the recesses of his hidden appearance as if we are trying to find his meaning, his thoughts.
There is something almost weirdly comical about the emphatic ears, the slicked-back hair and incisive part, of this poet who looks anything but poetic. Yet these unusually emphasized features actually become more important signs of his character than his shadowed face. The hard edges of the suit Eliot wears (not allowing us to forget that he worked for some years in a bank and was no bohemian) also add to the effect of the image.
It is one of the mysteries of photography that it can - very rarely - contain an intuitive completeness that asks to be understood in terms of art, as if calculation and mechanism were no part of the process. We accept a fragmentary, happenstance, transient image as almost inevitable in photography, so that when something supremely static, hard-won, and lastingly memorable is achieved, it has much more power.
This Brandt portrait of Eliot is a confrontation between two artists (one a writer, the other a photographer) and the stare of one is met, with no lesser degree of unnerving intent, by the stare of the other. A camera seems to have had nothing to do with it. It is Brandt and Eliot, like two cats trying to intimidate each other, to force retreat, neither giving ground.
In the final analysis, perhaps, it is Eliot who is the victim, trapped against the window and its empty light.
As in many unforgettable portraits - usually, in fact, self-portraits - it is the act of eye meeting eye that makes it uncanny and suggests that a message is being passed - when more often than not nothing is actually said and everything remains secretive.
Brandt, it appears, was himself reticent and to some extent secretive. A new book about his work, ``Bill Brandt: Photographs 1928-1983,'' edited and introduced by Ian Jeffrey, makes a determined shot at revealing some of the background and formative ideas that formed Brandt's varied but ``relatively undocumented'' career.
BUT Mr. Jeffries - while sometimes trying to analyze Brandt images himself - makes it clear that Brandt's shyness in analyzing his photographs must have come from the knowledge that establishing such meanings would simply destroy any meaning the work may have.
Jeffrey's prose is sometimes difficult. Photography often seems to summon up complexities of written expression. Perhaps this is compensation for a silent form of art or for the shallow response that photography - which after all is the cliche technique of our times - can frequently be subjected to.
But it is worthwhile to persist through this prose because Jeffrey has much to say that helps one get a feel for Brandt's remarkable photographs. At times, one manages a sense of what is being said rather than a positive knowledge.
An intriguing example of this occurs when Jeffrey refers to a comment about the portrait of the sculptor Alberto Giacometti's left eye:
``...in the 1960s, he photographed the eyes of an international cast of artists.... Close-ups of eyes are a commonplace in modern photography ... but Brandt's emphasis on fissured and puckered lids was a novelty, for it proposed the real rather than the imaginary of the artist. Equally, they were images that were in his gift, for he was possessor of the names, without which the pictures made no sense.''
BRANDT'S own comment about portrait photography, quoted in the book, sheds its own light. He wrote:
``Andre Breton once said that a portrait should not only be an image but an oracle one questions, and that the photographer's aim should be a profound likeness, which physically and morally predicts the subject's entire future.''
Perhaps it is characteristic that one of Brandt's few quotable comments about his own work was a quotation of someone else's idea, with which he presumably agreed. Certainly Eliot by Brandt looks like an oracle.
Brandt as a documentary photographer was, it seems, just as inclined to set things up with great care as he was when making a portrait. His indoor documentary photographs, of, for example, miners and their families, are scrupulously organized to look natural.
Jeffrey calls him a pioneer of this sort of work.
In terms of the longer history of visual art, however, he is a kind of modern photographer-version of the genre painters of the 19th century like David Wilkie, or the 17th-century Dutch painters of ordinary people in their houses. There are, on the other hand, Brandt photographs that seem to be entirely a matter of happenstance, like ``Children in Sheffield.'' The ``social commentary'' is obvious enough. But as an image of industrial childhood, it is eloquent unto itself and needs no words at all to be understood.
Much of Brandt's most unforgettable work - and the most British in atmosphere - is of landscape. Some of the images he made memorializing World War II were not of people and were well away from war zones.
They were of Hadrian's Wall, that long ruin that once divided North Britain from South. It was built and abandoned by the Romans. Jeffrey does well with this, pointing out the wall's potent symbolism as a frontier and showing how Brandt was less concerned with immediate events than with a much larger context of history. He calls Brandt's landscape work ``a landscape of absence.''
I FIND the photograph of ``The Pilgrim's Way'' in Kent supremely resonant with absence and history, but also with a strong hint of something in the future. The pathway is as vivid and intangible, as mysterious and ordinary, as a memory of a dream. As a photograph, it is far from pretentious and seems as artless as a mere observation.
Yet the white and black are what once again make it intense. And the streak of the narrow path, definite in direction and crossed at the top by two tree shadows and the grass, invasive but distinctly held back by the continuing passage of feet over this ancient ground, the sense of continuousness beyond the picture - all these factors combine in an image that could only have been photographed and printed by a peculiar, fierce, and knowing artist.