As a photographer, Bill Brandt was famous for his contrasted images of class society in The English at Home (1936); for his searching portraits of artists and authors; for his Blitz pictures - especially of St Paul's - in his Camera in London (1948); for his dark landscapes; for the cross-cutting content of Literary Britain, and for the disturbing distortions in his Perspective of Nudes. He was also well-known for his secrecy. Like many artists, he invented himself as well as his work, but only when he had to. Like Magritte, he would have preferred to hide behind his pictures, and be the original faceless creator.
Canadian academic Paul Delany has made it his mission to bring to light the man behind the famous police camera that Brandt favoured for revealing portraits of others. He has interviewed or researched the writers, artists and psychoanalysts who knew Brandt, and who offer an opinion. Delany covers the ground from 1931, when Brandt came to London from Paris (where he had apprenticed himself to Man Ray), until his death in 1983. And he salutes those who first gave academic credence to Brandt's work: the British critics Mark Haworth-Booth, Ian Jeffery and David Mellor, on whose interpretations Delany depends.
In deconstructing the photographic images, Delany at times confuses rather than enlightens. He relies heavily on the Freudian analysis that he both emphasises, and decries, in Brandt's own work. At times, Delany's general tendency to psychologise obscures rather than helps his case.
Brandt was very much in the right place at the right time. Tom Hopkinson, editor of both Lilliput and Picture Post, where Brandt made his name, was fascinated by the whole mesh of continental traditions that arrived in Britain in the 1930s. Yet Hopkinson knew that Brandt was no true photojournalist.
Indeed, when Brandt was sent to do a "Gorbals story" in 1948, he had to be replaced by Bert Hardy. The feature ran with Brandt's long-distance architectural shots with backlit silhouettes, and a posed policeman, in the first half. Then Hardy, a Cockney man of the people, weighed in with the popular portraits - including one of the most famous he ever made, of two ragamuffins with linked arms and grubby faces. It was taken at a proximity Brandt avoided on every occasion.
Brandt's fascination with the English class system, in which he assumed a patrician role, is just part of the legend. It has long been known that he posed his upstairs/downstairs portraits of a maid drawing a bath, or of a miner in a tin tub, washing off the coaldust. A lot is made of the fact that prostitutes posed for some of Brandt's nudes, but then even Hardy used a prostitute (with her client) in his Elephant and Castle image. These aspects of Brandt's portfolio are examined in detail.
As for the conclusion that Brandt was "the greatest of British photographers": the jury remains out.