A new Bill Brandt exhibition at Foam museum in Amsterdam asserts that the sinister is “an ever-present element of Brandt’s photographs”, from his photojournalism through to the more artistically driven endeavours later in his career.
Curated by Fundación Mapfre’s Ramón Esparza in collaboration with Foam, The Beautiful and the Sinister features many of Brandt’s works taken in London, where the German-born photographer settled in 1931. Landmarks and locations synonymous with the city are present, although in his war-era images, Brandt finds them in states of disarray.
In 1940, Brandt captured citizens taking shelter at the Elephant & Castle Underground station during a bomb raid, still able to form an orderly line despite a presumably panicked atmosphere above ground. As sleeping bodies cover the platform, one person’s gaze connects directly with his lens.
Elsewhere, St Paul’s Cathedral is obscured by blackouts and foregrounded by a mountain of moonlit debris. Brandt’s later reflections on this photograph, and more broadly his views on night photography, show the way he saw beauty and terror not as opposing forces, but key to one another: “The darkened town, lit only by moonlight, looked more beautiful than before or since. It was fascinating to walk through the deserted streets and to photograph houses which I knew well, and which no longer looked three-dimensional, but flat like painted stage scenery.”
After the war, Brandt moved away from documentary work and felt his way towards photography as an artform. The nudes and landscapes in the exhibition demonstrate his eye for sculptural forms; they became a playground for Brandt to experiment with shape, perspective and a graphic language drawing on Surrealist cues. Brandt famously rubbed shoulders with Surrealist pioneer Man Ray, among other literary and art figures over the years – many of whom he photographed, like Dylan Thomas or Francis Bacon.
Despite being taken in an altogether different stage of his diverse photography career, Brandt’s portrait of Bacon bears parallels with his earlier photojournalism – it is compelling, curious and still, filled with a sense of cloudy unease.
Bill Brandt: The Beautiful and the Sinister runs at Foam, Amsterdam until May 18; foam.org