Artist research: The photographers Bill Brandt, André Kertész and Brassaï

23/24 July 2017. Bill Brandt (1904-1983, UK), André Kertész (1894-1985, Hungary) and Brassaï (Gyula Halász, 1899-1984, Hungary-France) were groundbreaking photographers, who shared a love of black and white photography at a time when colour photography was already available and a keen eye for the unusual view on the seemingly mundane to create striking compositions.
My tutor very likely intended for me here that I investigate the principles of distribution of light and dark areas in a composition devoid of colour. Since in black and white photography there is no colour to distract the eye (which humans have a great innate affinity for), any compositional imbalance is noticed immediately. Gibson (n.d.) points out that “the emotional power of color can mask poor composition”, which requires that particular attention is to be paid to “tonal contrast, texture, line, shape, pattern, and negative space”. This will be absolutely true for black and white painting as well. Another vital aspect listed by Gibson (n.d.) for successful black and white photography, the requirement of having the best possible lighting conditions, will of course be of great advantage in setting up the arrangement for a painting. However, in painting there is a large creative space on top of the properties of a setup, within which the respective weight of light and dark may be analysed, played with and adapted further. Which means that deviation from the original arrangement may be such that it is no longer recognizable in the finished work.
Among the three pioneering photographers I feel the greatest affinity with Brassaï. His compositions include many textural elements I might find in a contemporary painting. Troiano (2016) analyses his “The Language of the Wall” graffiti series from wartime Paris (ASX team, 2013) as a purposeful journey through the history of man. This may not be immediately obvious to the first-time viewer, but graffiti is often based on symbols common and intelligible to a large percentage of people through the times. One such photo in connection with the other members of the series thus becomes the carrier of several embedded layers of narrative, allowing a viewer to travel with it for as deep as they want the journey to be, from a superficial interest in the depicted wall texture to prophetic messages encoded in the series.
Bill Brandt, on the other hand, appears to me to have been a more direct commentator of contemporary everyday and political life, and, as black and white photography lends itself beautifully to that purpose, the documentation of the world at night. As far as I can see there are fewer encoded messages than in Brassaï’s work and this is probably included in his explanation of his approach to photographing the human body: “Instead of photographing what I saw, I photographed what the camera was seeing. I interfered very little, and the lens produced anatomical images and shapes which my eyes had never observed.” (Victoria and Albert Museum, n.d.). This appears to me as a highly experimental, 21th century approach, since while the absence of planning will have opened doors to a new way of seeing the world, it will also have been accompanied by a great many failures. Brandt however also edited photographs in his darkroom to achieve effects he had in mind (Victoria and Albert Museum, n.d.). In images which were not pure documents of a situation, Brandt’s compositional qualities are strikingly evident. In the same way as in a working painting he leads the viewer into and through a story, for example in his “Coal-searcher Going Home to Jarrow” (1937).
The fewest connections I notice with André Kertész. There seems to be a strange modern commercial feel to the photographs I found, which is strong enough for me to lose interest. While the compositions are immaculate, for me they do not radiate the mystery of Brassaï’s work and also lack the political statement of Brandt’s. This is not surprising, really, as Kertész used to work for magazines such as “House and Garden” (The J. Paul Getty Museum, n.d.).

For my own work to come I will have printouts on my wall of those photos which left the strongest impression. I just hope that I can learn from them.

References

ASX team (2013) Brassai: *The Language of the Wall” [blog] [online]. American Suburb X, 27 July. Available from: http://www.americansuburbx.com/2013/07/brassai-graffiti.html [Accessed 24 July 2017]

Brandt, B. (1937) Coal-searcher Going Home to Jarrow [black and white photograph] [online]. Bill Brandt Archive Ltd. Available from: http://www.vam.ac.uk/content/articles/b/bill-brandt-biography/ [Accessed 24 July 2017]

Gibson, A.S. (n.d.) Avoid These 5 Common Mistakes in Black and White Photography [blog] [online]. Digital Photography School. Available from: https://digital-photography-school.com/5-mistakes-black-white-photography/ [Accessed 23 July 2017]

The J. Paul Getty Museum (n.d.) André Kertész (Getty Museum) [online]. The J. Paul Getty Museum. Available from: http://www.getty.edu/art/collection/artists/1847/andr-kertsz-american-born-hungary-1894-1985/ [Accessed 24 July 2017]

Troiano, C. (2016) ‘Graffiti’ photographs by Brassaï [blog] [online]. Victoria and Albert Museum, London, 13 May. Available from: http://www.vam.ac.uk/blog/network/graffiti-photographs-by-brassai [Accessed 23 July 2017]

Victoria and Albert Museum (n.d.) Bill Brandt Biography [online]. Victoria and Albert Museum, London. Available from: http://www.vam.ac.uk/content/articles/b/bill-brandt-biography/ [Accessed 24 July 2017]

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