Bill Brandt – Monochrome Master

Bill Brandt (1904-1983)

Famous for his groundbreaking black and white photographs of nudes and his social commentary made inside people’s homes, Brant’s main influence over my photography are the somewhat bleak 1930s and 40s images he produced of landscapes, both industrial and natural. Social commentary was his speciality and within this genre and I find his work aesthetically and technically pleasing.

Probably one of his most famous (and most reproduced) images is ‘Snicket in Halifax’ (1937). It is also one of my favourites. It stands out on it’s own as a fantastic graphic representation of what he was seeing at the time. It is also part of a series which eventually takes you over the railway bridge (the ‘snicket’) the viewer sees in front of them and on to the top where you spy some children walking or playing next to the train tracks below.

View from the top of the ‘Snicket’ – Bill Brandt – Halifax, 1937

The ‘Snicket in Halifax’ seems to change every time I see it; over-exposed, under-exposed, smoke blowing, sky blown out, cobbles with texture, cobbles without texture. I am aware that some of these versions are down to Brandt’s taste when he processed and printed. Other versions will be down to the publication they are found in and their own editing processes. Online you will see literally hundreds of different versions with just a simple search on Google. Some of these are taken from the original, some are homages to Brandt and some are out-and-out copies. The version below is taken from the Bill Brandt archives so one suspects there must be some sort of his vision in this version. Having said that, he died in 1983 and the internet didn’t appear until some 13 years later. So although he has a heavy influence (i.e. it’s his initial image) how true this reproduction is to it is anybody’s guess.

The things I take from his photographs are twofold.

One, the graphic nature of this photograph is all important. The eye fills in the gaps where the cobbles are blown out for example, or where the sides of the buildings disappear in to the deep black with no detail. Contrary to convention, the whites and blacks can be just that; areas containing no detail. It in no way spoils the enjoyment of the image.

Two, that so much of the sentiment and interest of the image can be made in the post-production stages. As far as I’m concerned with my monochromatic assignment I will have to make drastic changes during post-production as I will be shooting in colour. In some ways my interference and intervention will be far greater than Brandt’s and his predecessors. In other ways such was the mastery of these photographers that the majority of editing is likely to have happened in their heads a great deal, knowing how colour, form and light were going to appear in black and white even before the shutter had been released. I could argue that it was easier for them to think in black and white as that was the only media (in photographic terms) they had available to them but this I think would do Brandt et al a great dis-service.

Snicket in Halifax, 1937 – Bill Brandt © Bill Brandt Archive Ltd

Brandt’s extraordinary photography fits in perfectly with my vision of what I would like to put in my next assignment, ‘monochrome’.
Last year an exhibition entitled ‘Shadow and Light’ was curated to his memory. I think the title perfectly explains his work.


One thought on “Bill Brandt – Monochrome Master

  1. Pingback: Assignment 3 – Southend-on-Sea – A review | BA Blog

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