Unique perspective of the man who chronicled life in Britain

Bill Brandt's photographs are modern classics, documenting every aspect of our society. But a new exhibition reveals it was his European roots that inspired this singular vision
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He was the German-born photographer who captured the British on camera like no one else in the 20th century. Now the centenary of Bill Brandt's birth is being marked with a retrospective at the Victoria & Albert Museum in London featuring many of his most celebrated images of British life and times.

From the grimy mining communities of the North to the high society of Ascot races and Park Lane, Brandt captured aspects of his adopted homeland that others missed, says Mark Haworth-Booth, the exhibition's curator. Two photograph albums, compiled by Brandt's first wife, Eva, in the 1930s and acquired by the V&A last year, reveal for the first time how the experience he acquired in his early travels across Europe prepared him for his role as a chronicler of the English.

"By the time he came to England, he was the best-equipped photographer in England to photograph everything here," Mr Haworth-Booth said. "He had been in Vienna at the height of Modernism and in Paris with the Surrealists. He brought to the British scene a unique sensibility formed elsewhere. He becomes the anatomist of English society."

Brandt was born in Hamburg on 2 May 1904 to an English father and German mother. But after he was bullied as a schoolboy and with the subsequent rise of Nazism, he was to disown his German background.

He appears to have taken up photography in his mid-20s when he was being treated for tuberculosis in a Swiss sanatorium, and travelled through Europe with Eva Boros, whom he married in Barcelona in 1932. He first visited England in 1929 and again in 1933, before adopting Britain as his home from 1934 until his death in 1983.

Although there was a Brandt show at the Hayward Gallery in 1970 and a more recent exhibition at the Barbican, the V&A'sis unusual in that nearly all of the more than 150 works are "vintage" prints made by Brandt at the time the photographs were taken - in some cases touched up to highlight details that would have been lost in magazine reproduction. They have been lent from the Brandt family archive.

Brandt's first photographic exploration of the English, The English at Home, was published in 1936, and was followed by a series examining the North in 1937 and London by night a year later. While he was not afraid to stage scenes, using members of his family as actors, the pictures reveal the disparity between rich and poor that was a feature of the Depression.

Mr Haworth-Booth believes part of Brandt's success lay in his sympathetic approach. Tom Hopkinson, founder of Picture Post and probably Brandt's greatest editor and champion, described him as having "a voice as loud as a moth and the gentlest manner to be found outside a nunnery". A friend observed that Brandt had so much patience he could stand in a Highland bog longer than any Highland cow.

Later sequences of photographs include Literary Britain, landscape photographs illustrating texts by authors, such as Thomas Hardy and the Brontë sisters, whose writings were associated with the countryside.

There are also portraits of many great artists and writers, from Picasso to Dylan Thomas, and from Francis Bacon to Graham Greene. The National Portrait Gallery is exhibiting a further selection of portraits until 30 August. The exhibition concludes with nudes, clearly inspired by Brandt's time as an assistant to the American photographer Man Ray in Paris.

The retrospective opens to the public tomorrow and runs until 25 July. The V&A is also to host the first international symposium on Brandt's work on 1 May.