Bill Brandt is now recognised as one of the most influential photographers of the twentieth century. He is often associated with documentary images that capture the social rituals and class distinctions of a grim, depressed Britain in the 1930s and 1940s. Yet, with a sensibility formed through his exposure to innovative European photography, including early contacts with Surrealism, he had an ability to extract something fresh and strange from the most ordinary of subjects, searching out, in his own words, ‘the spell that charged the commonplace with beauty’.
Brandt was born in Hamburg in 1904. His father was registered as a British subject but belonged to a family of wealthy merchant bankers based in Hamburg. Having a British father and a German mother led to a difficult upbringing for Brandt during the First World War. In 1919 he was sent to a strict Prussian boarding school and this was followed by spells of treatment for tuberculosis in Switzerland and a period of psychoanalysis in Vienna in the 1920s.
Through the poet Ezra Pound he met the surrealist photographer Man Ray with whom he had a brief but important apprenticeship in Paris in 1930. He settled permanently in Britain in 1934, producing work for magazines such as Picture Post, Lilliput and Harper’s Bazaar. His first anthology of photographs was published as The English at Home in 1936 and this was followed by volumes such as A Night in London (1938) and Camera in London (1948). His haunting pictures of London in the blackout and of improvised shelters in the Underground have become iconic images of wartime Britain.
Although Brandt is best known for his urban themes, his subject matter was broad and included portraits, nudes and landscapes. In the years after the Second World War he toured Britain, gathering images of inspirational landscapes that were published as Literary Britain in 1951. He visited Scotland on several occasions, for example producing photo-essays on Edinburgh and St Andrews in 1942. Our image of a Highland cow standing on the shores of Loch Slapin was one of eight photographs of the island of Skye that Brandt published in Lilliput magazine in 1947.
The view is taken across the loch to the impressive silhouette of Blaven, one of the peaks of the famous Black Cuillin mountains. is was a familiar subject in contemporary postcards, often shown as a panorama with a herd of Highland cattle in the foreground. However, Brandt translated this picturesque view into something brooding and melancholy. Adopting an unusual vertical format, he reduced the landscape to a stark pattern of black-and-white shapes, all but eliminating detail such as the cottage just visible on the distant shore. Far from being decorative, the solitary beast exudes a sense of resistance and even menace, bringing a faint echo of Picasso’s wartime imagery into the Highland setting. Brandt was not alone in seeking mood and meaning in remote, romantic locations in the post-war period but this is an extraordinarily powerful vision of an elemental and awe-inspiring landscape.
This text was originally published in 100 Masterpieces: National Galleries of Scotland, Edinburgh, 2015.