Cuckmere River winding through landscape

The unsettling beauty of Bill Brandt’s photographs

A new exhibition, The Beautiful and the Sinister, highlights the relationship between these two elements in Brandt’s work, and examines the influence of Surrealism

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.

People sleeping in Elephant and Castle Underground platform in 1940
Elephant & Castle Underground, 1940. All images © Bill Brandt/Bill Brandt Archive Ltd

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.”

Debris in front of St Pauls Cathedral in London at night in 1942
St Paul’s Cathedral in the moonlight, 1942

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.

Nude in Baie des Anges in France
Nude, Baie des Anges, France, 1959
Francis Bacon on Primrose Hill in London in 1963
Francis Bacon on Primrose Hill, London, 1963
People climbing looking for coal in East Durham in1937
East Durham coalsearchers, 1937
Field blowing in wind in Top Withens, West Riding in Yorkshire in 1945
Top Withens, West Riding, Yorkshire, 1945

Bill Brandt: The Beautiful and the Sinister runs at Foam, Amsterdam until May 18;