Review – Bill Brandt

Bill Brandt (1904 – 1983)

Brandt, BillFig. 1. Northumbrian Miner at His Evening Meal (1937)

Initial Thoughts:- Real photo of a Northern Miner and his wife. Pulls no punches. Doesnt clean it up, doesn’t wait for sunday best, Makes the photo as it is. Miner – Dirty, stained with coal dust, hands filthy, doesn’t wash or change before eating, wooden table and wood shows signs of ageing, well provisioned with basic food, sugar, meat, sandwich, suet pudding?? loaf of homemade bread. Man – devoid of expression, Woman – looks dejected, fed up, not eating with her husband. This is a working meal of a shift worker, eating alone, going back to work? Mug, glassware, cutlery, ornament on stand mass-produced. Washing is hanging up above the table (jumpers, bedding). The womans handbag is hanging up. Its well used, but hanging up and not left around, it’s not an every day occurrence to use the handbag. This family is not well off, but neither are they broke, although every penny gets accounted for, and everything is repaired, reused, and looked after (the wallpaper is in very good condition, and the only sign of age is where it peels back from the door frame).  There is a painting on the wall behind the washing, and the figure looks to be appearing from behind the washing, looking down at the couple. Do they even talk to each other anymore? Does he just go to work, come home, eat, go back to work and sleep? Does she just cook breakfast, do the washing, tidy, clean the house, cook lunch, do more washing, do more cleaning, cook tea, darn clothes, sleep? Does she have any friends? Does she get time to talk to wives of other miners? He has community with his co-workers, she has little. This is not living. This is existing for existing sake. Where is the pleasure? It is not in the eyes or demeanor. Miners housing. rented not owned, tied accommodation, no work – no home.

 

Robert-GravesFig. 2. Robert Graves in His Cottage at Churston Devon (Circa 1941)

Initial Thoughts:- What a contrasting photo. bohemian, writer, thinker, space, time, cleanliness but busyness. Home is owned, his cottage, can’t see the whole house, but the representation is sparse in the way of possessions (other than writing equipment), does this suggest the cottage is inherited? Regardless of wealth he has enough money in the bank to live comfortably, to write (what doe he write? essays? books? Poetry? – he isn’t a journalist (his clothing, writing in personal space, draft of essay or book. Perhaps a student but I don’t think so. He is a free-thinker, creative writer) He wears several layers of clothing (appears he has four tops on). He is also an artist, there is a tube of paint and several brushes on the table. He drinks from a bone china tea cup, whilst he writes and paints. He has more than enough money in the bank. His is expression is studious, interested. His skin is healthy. What a difference a bit of money can do.

These photos are a tale of two halves. Both images have allowed themselves to be photographed in their own homes. Is photography real? Can photography ever be claimed to be factual? That debates for another day, but I do believe that these are realistic. They havent been staged. This is how the people in the photos live. It says a lot about society, then and now, that those who “have” can enjoy life and have some freedom and choice, satisfaction and the pursuit of their own ideals. Those who “don’t” just exist. All though in the UK there is more comfort and opportunity for those from the poorer side of the divide, there is still a chasm in the quality of life between the proletariat and the bourgeoisie. The images bring out the angry marxist in me, and sadness. How can I not feel for the couple in the first photo. But I am also like Mr Graves. I want to explore, to learn to express, to challenge, to create, to make a difference. The anger is because there is enough money in the world for everyone to live a free and comfortable life. There really is. So why do we follow this stupid capitalist system so that we can give the 1% more. There is enough for everyone, and yet we still allow this happen. We switch off our minds, buy the next car, the next phone, the next house, the next lie that tells us we should work harder so we can own more, achieve more, and we forget that there is already enough in the world for us to relax, to chill, to have the space to enjoy each others company.

These are timeless images. There is a truth within them. They are also not making a statement about what is right or wrong, but questions arise within the eyes of the viewer, when these portraits are seen in comparison.

What have I learned from these photos? Portraits are more than shots of faces. Allowing space around a person can contextualise their photo. Portraits can make social statements. Portraits are taken for different reasons, some make statements, some ask questions.

Illustrations

Figure 1. Brandt, B (1937) Northumbrian Miner at His Evening Meal [Gelatin] At: https://www.1fmediaproject.net/2013/03/06/bill-brandt-shadow-and-light-at-the-museum-of-modern-art-presents-a-major-reevaluation-of-the-artists-career/ (accessed on 04/10/2017)

Figure 2. Brandt, B (Circa 1941) Robert Graves in His Cottage at Churston Devon At: https://billbrandtarchive.photoshelter.com/gallery-image/Portraits-male/G00005CApULC3wVQ/I0000tX1uxdB2Cpc (accessed on 04/10/2017)

Also Viewed

https://billbrandtarchive.photoshelter.com/gallery-image/Portraits-male/G00005CApULC3wVQ/I0000TCSNXZyQv0g (accessed on 04/10/2017)

https://billbrandtarchive.photoshelter.com/gallery-image/Portraits-female/G0000p2oj30TCuuk/I00000kpBRDZ7y80 (accessed on 04/10/2017)

http://visualarts.britishcouncil.org/exhibitions/exhibition/bill-brandt-photographs-1982/object/robert-graves-in-his-cottage-at-churston-devon-brandt-1941-portraits-p4724 (accessed on 04/10/2017)

http://www.billbrandt.com/news/2015/5/6/barbara-hepworth (accessed on 04/10/2017)

https://www.poets.org/poetsorg/poet/robert-graves (accessed on 04/10/2017)

5 Replies to “Review – Bill Brandt”

  1. Hi Richard

    I like your reading of these two photos and like you have left wing take them. That said I wonder if these is a bit to the miner’s photo. I’m seeing a proud working man. The room is probably the ‘back room’ of the house where most daily activity took place, hence the drying clothes etc. I imagine the ‘front room’ will be well decorated and kept for high days and holidays. I agree that life will have been tough for these folk and the rest of their community but how much of our interpretation should be informed by today’s norms and standards? As I said I think he is a proud man living in a turbulent time when some of his colleagues may well have gone to Spain to fight fascism.

    Dave C

    Liked by 5 people

    1. Thanks for your feedback David. I hadn’t considered the pride aspect and I think I’ve made an oversight on that regard.
      And I agree also that it’s hard to not look through the eyes of current times and make a judgement from these eyes. I will keep that in mind.
      Just as I was going to bed last night I also considered that Brandt would have been viewing England from the perspective of his German upbringing. He hadn’t been in the UK that long when he travelled around England photographing for his first book, the time when he shot the Northumberland miner. I think that would have been a motivation for the series and how he could shoot from a neutral perspective and include images that others may not have done at the time.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Very interesting and thank you. I worked as a district nurse in the now closed Kent coalfields during the miners strike in the 1980’s. I learnt much of pride and history, as well as daily life. One example: before pithead baths it was quite normal to eat whilst the fire that cooked the dinner heated the water for a tin bath in front of the fire. But that said, not every day. The cold water in the yard for a bit of a washdown at other times.
    I am impressed that the living room included a brilliantly white crocheted table mat. The emotion in the face of the miner’s wife much harder to interpret. Was she content that this photograph was being taken? Is she worried about revealing the interior of her home that has clearly been scrupulously polished for the shoot. She would certainly have had a strong wives and women network. Is she anxious about their opinions? We all bring our own experiences to viewing photographs as with other forms of art.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Everything has already been said. As far as the wives’ expression goes, somehow I feel that she just looks flustered looking at her husband sitting down to eat without cleaning up, as most ladies of the house are. She is probably fed up of telling him this and just sighs in submission. The miner whereas couldn’t care less and perhaps that is the bone of contention between the two. As is or rather was very common in a not so far back India, women watched as their husbands ate. They served and only ate alone when the entire family had eaten. Maybe this is the case here. A male-dominated society where women served their duties quietly without having any say in the matter. I can so relate to this picture even in the Indian context.

    Like

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