Sunday, July 21, 2013

Looking at Photographs: Bill Brandt at MoMA

There are only a couple of weeks left to see Bill Brandt: Shadow and Light at MoMA. If you haven't gone, I highly recommend that you do. Brandt is best known for a series of nudes taken in the mid-40's and -50's. Some verge on abstraction while others employ a degree of spatial distortion that breaks the scale between subject and environment. Rooms become vast. Or impossibly small. The influence of surrealism in this body of work is clear. And the surreal emerges in less expected places: the image of a man sleeping in a sarcophagus in Christ Church, used as an temporary air raid shelter during the London blitz, for example. Or in a series of portraits of artists, taken in extreme close up so that the artist's eye -- more elephant-like than human --fills the frame. Brandt had a way of seeing which made the familiar appear as though it had never been seen before.

Brandt also viewed the darkroom process as an integral part of transforming his subject. A remarkable image shows miners in an elevator re-entering sunlight at the end of their shift, their faces in shadow and covered with soot. In that darkness, their eyes gleam with light: a darkroom trick in which some of the silver is bleached away with potassium ferricyanide, a steady hand and a fine-tipped brush. One of the curatorial points of Bill Brandt: Shadow and Light is to show the evolution of his printing style. The exhibition catalogs a wide range of possibilities for interpreting a black and white image. Brandt's later images have a distinctive look: high contrast, graphic, gritty – and instantly recognizable as a Brandt. The earlier photographs have a long tonal range with a surprising amount of detail in the shadows. There is a smoothness and richness in the darks that is difficult to reproduce in printed form or on screen. In class, we often talk about the importance of maintaining detail in the shadows – a visit to the Brandt exhibition shows you exactly what that can look like.