New York

Bill Brandt

Marlborough | Midtown

Bill Brandt’s photography is as dramatically prosy as George Orwell’s prose is dramatically photographic. The artistic testimony of both men accuses a dark century for England and her people, a time of soot, storms, wars, blackouts, and shadowed recreations. Brandt could have been playing Evans to Orwell’s Agee on The Road to Wigan Pier when he pictured coal miners and coal gatherers, some returned black-faced to the surface where the sun pastes itself as blindingly on their bodies as it must in their eyes. As for Orwell, social contrasts for Brandt are as extreme as the stark contrast of the blacks and whites in his photos. Economic recession runs as deep as the long, damp perspectives of his shots down lonesome London alleys, along canals, or across rooftops.

Practically every outdoor shot in the Brandt show features dark, low-hanging clouds, fogs, and grim smoky sectors of sky. His interiors are often bars or servant quarters where skin takes on the pallor of closeness and reflected light. The light is always indirect, watery and vaporous. Occasionally it oozes over the horizon under the clouds, like a reformer’s tepid hope smothered by social inertia, or it seeps out of lamps that seem about to be snuffed by the thickness of the air. These lamps, like the bridges and rooftop views, are part of an iconography of London running from Dickens and Doré right on down. In some pictures they take on another sense: in a famous 1963 picture of Francis Bacon walking on Primrose Hill they appear theatrical and anachronistic. The image is eerily expressive of the personality and the era.

Certain street scenes in the show verge on the mysteriousness of film noir, as in Footsteps Coming Nearer, which could be a still from Hitchcock. No heads are visible, only trunks and legs. A woman’s bright shoe competes with the glint of light off damp pavement; a man moves into view in the left foreground. The image is charged with anticipation, and it teases by suggesting the sound of the steps—which would be the center of attention if this shot really were part of a movie.

Things are always looming in Brandt’s pictures. Even in one of the few sunny-day images in the show, of Brighton Beach in the ’30s, the bottom of a bridge or pier frames the picture at the top and sends its shadows down on the bathers beneath. They crowd together with the compulsion to pilgrimage and the unconcern with dirt of a crowd on the Ganges; as in Graham Greene’s Brighton Rock, violence would go unnoticed in this crowd.

Brandt’s picture of Greene himself, on the other hand, is one of a group in which artists and writers are photographed in their native settings. Ultimately these photos are the extension of book-jacket pictures, but they strike far too close to shabbiness and desperation ever to be chosen for such a role. Robert Graves darkly chews his pen for Brandt’s camera; Dylan Thomas is a clashing composition of three checked patterns in conflict with a black leather banquette, as he sits in a London pub with a couple of beers in front of him.

The curious nudes, dating from the ’50s, and a picture of two enormous feet, stuck in the foreground with two tiny doors that come forward across an absent middle ground to join them, are among the few pictures in the show that remind us Brandt worked with Man Ray. They suggest that it is Brandt’s eye for framing disturbing situations that compels us to accept his versions of the everyday as so convincing.

Phil Patton