Legacy documentary for social change – Bill Brandt’s Art of the Document

For this exercise I need to read the essay ‘Bill Brandt’s Art of the Document’ by David Campany, write a short summary and contemplate how B&W became such a respected and trusted medium. More scribbled notes and observations are on a printed version to be included in my learning log.

Bill Brandt (1904–1983) was one of the Twentieth Century’s greatest photographers producing a body of photographic works that range from stark realism and social comment to pure abstraction and surrealism.

David Campany is a writer, curator and artist, working mainly with photography.


‘The Career of a Photographer, the Career of a Photograph – Bill Brandt’s Art of the Document’ First published in the Tate Liverpool exhibition catalogue Making History:Art and documentary in Britain from 1929-Now, 2006.

Campany begins by reminding us that photographs maybe of a time, but they can also be transferable, being ‘highly mobile’ and the example he opens with is Bill Brandt’s Palourmaid and underpalourmaid ready to serve dinner. Taken in 1933 it now has at least 3 uses: as an example of Brandt’s work, a milestone in documentary and it documents the lifestyle in the 1930’s. (Campany et al 2006: 51).


The image initially appeared in Brandt’s first book The English at Home (1936) which was effectively a survey of the social classes, rural and urban. The cover itself sets the theme which runs through the book; juxtaposing images of the well to do opposite the working classes. This was quite unusual as, on the whole, photo-books or publications only dealt with one subject at a time e.g. the work of the FSA, Lewis Hine and Jacob Riis. These photographers dealt with serious social reform and thus began the connection to B&W and serious documentary work.

In as much as people are inspired by other photographers in what, and how, they photograph, they are also influenced by other publications. Brandt appears to have been influenced by the double page spread of Der Querschnitt (The Cross Section) – an art magazine published by the German art dealer Alfred Flechtheim between 1921 and 1936, based in Berlin and considered to be quite avant-garde at the time.

It is possible that Brandt’s book was also considered a little too avant-garde and forward thinking, as it proved to not be very popular and was eventually remaindered – disposed of (a book left unsold) at a reduced price – with Campany calling it ‘out of step.’ It could be that the upper classes, who could afford this book, did not like what they saw reflected back at them.

Described by Raymond Mortimer as ‘an artist [and] an anthropologist’ Brandt used his upbringing in Switzerland and tutelage under Man-Ray to look at the English as if they were ‘some remote and unfamiliar tribe.’ He liked to  capture ‘the rituals and customs of daily life,’ a bit like Tony Ray-Jones and Martin Parr today.

In 1938 the same image was published in Verve magazine – an art and literature review edited by Teriade – and given a wider audience and meaning, as it was opposite an essay by Jean-Paul Sartre on the culture of food, and a painting by Henri Matisse.


(Tériade is the nom de plume of Stratis Eleftheriades  who went to Paris in 1915 at the age of eighteen to study law, but became an art critic, patron, and publisher – working with noted artists and photographers such as Picasso and Henri Cartier Bresson.)

Brandt was then commissioned by many other publications, one being the Picture Post, which ran a photo-story by Brandt about the day in the life of a parlourmaid. I think this would have been more impressive if I hadn’t discovered that the house belonged to, and the maids employed by, Brandt’s uncle. I also find it quite telling that it is his images of the upper class that were commissioned or re-used. Campany does not comment upon  if anyone seemed to worry about the conditions of the working classes that he captured?

This style of photo-story was popular and ‘acceptable,’ there was nothing contentious about these images, described as ‘less visually striking.’ Despite having less elegance this style of documenting life, and continued publishing, helped embed Brandt and B&W imagery firmly within the realms of the ‘respected and trusted.’ Shown along with captions and text the audience was given factual information against photographs that people recognised and could easily identify with, similarly the instantly recognisable character traits as captured by August Sander’s typology’s of pre-war Germany.

Soon after the War Brandt turned his attentions towards art photography and the surreal…


and experimented with harsher tones…


However, Brandt still did not walk totally away from his photo-journalistic roots as he included ‘Palourmaid….’ once more in a 1960’s anthology Shadow of Light.


I don’t know if it is that obvious on screen but apparently there are subtle differences within the processing of these images in between publications: in this image the glass and silverware is given the attention and the maids are not so sharp allowing different meaning to be read from the photograph such as knowing their ‘position’ in life etc.

Throughout photographic history the same image has continued to pop up, with Walker Evans selecting it for inclusion in the book Quality.Its Image in the Arts and then in 1970 it being seen in Brandt’s NY show at MOMA.

Campany points out that Brandt was in a tricky position as being considered a ‘figure from the past’ as well as ‘contemporary,’ his nudes on the Sussex coastline taken in 1977.


How B&W did became such a respected and trusted medium? In the first instance we have to accept that the photograph it is itself honest.  ‘In twentieth century terms, photographs are records of things seen’ Clarke (1997, cited Berger) and the ‘photographic  image has been sanctioned as ‘real’.’ (Clarke 1997) So…to answer the question of how B&W did became such a respected and trusted medium, I think there are several things that need to be taken into consideration. Firstly, the fact that due to the technology of the time B&W WAS the only medium available, so truth or lies, B&W was what you got! However, historically the cost of the process meant that only serious news and supporting images were printed and possibly people were, not necessarily more gullible, but less likely to question the information being presented to them and to accept it as trustworthy…so think Pavlov’s dogs…B&W = honest, real, truthful, respectable.

As far as authenticity was concerned the other alternative was either paintings or, in early news prints, woodcuts, which were open to artistic interpretation even more so that the photograph.

Secondly, you then have respected publishers, other photographers, critics, curators and museums holding certain images and photographers up to be excellent representatives of their field, further building upon the illusion of respectability and truthfulness. If the establishment say it’s so then it must be…To quote Orwell ‘Napoleon is always right!’

Even with the advent of modern technology the sheer volume of B&W images and the historic value attached to the famous photographers and their bodies of work would be hard to ignore and overturn overnight. Therefore many of the more contemporary photographers were influenced by former professionals, either through study or just admiring their work, that they sought to emulate them. Cartier-Bresson, for example, was unwilling to use colour and justified this decision by stating that colour film had ‘technical limitations’ but when technology caught up changed his stance by repeating the myth that there was a division between photography and painting and that ‘colour belongs to painting’. Sontag (2008, p.128)

Many professional photographers often developed their own work; the Exit Group for example and Marcus Bleasdale did an evening class in B&W developing. This was down to cost and accessibility.

As discovered whilst reading the article by van den Heuven (2005)  colour images were attributed to the  highly constructed, garish, stylised fashion and advertising industry making it synonymous  with ‘artifice.’

I am of a generation that remembers 3 TV channels and only having a B&W TV. Newspapers were only B&W, novels only had line drawings, even text books weren’t always in colour. It is only in recent history that colour supplements came along, colour TV, and the internet has so much to answer for! It will be interesting to see how the generation growing up now view this debate, maybe the popularity for B&W images will gradually decrease as the balance of colour photography tips the scales and more and more publications refuse to run B&W photo-stories. ( as per email response from Marcus Bleasdale)

Whilst I can see the aesthetic reasons for continuing to shoot in B&W, as given in response to my query with regards to the work of Nick Danziger, there are also many successful documentary photographers shooting in colour who are considered to be both respected and trustworthy too.

*update* Having moved onto reading the article written by Maartje van den Heuvel she seems to validate my point about Pavlov’s dogs and Orwell… well ish.. but she does state:

visual literacy develops almost exclusively through looking at mass media. It is mainly photographers, filmmakers and (video) artists who have actively reflected upon the uses of images…they do this not textually, but through making their own images. 

Which to me is saying no-one teaches you, you look at what is there and respond accordingly. No-one said B&W is just for documentary but this is what was used, this is all we saw and this is what we accept or tend to accept to be the norm.


August Sander (2016) Available at: https://www.moma.org/artists/5145 (Accessed: 21 December 2016).

Barson, T., Campany, D. and Morris, L. (eds.) (2006) Making History: Art and Documentary in Britain from 1929 to Now . Liverpool: Tate Publishing.

Bill Brandt’s art of the document (2006) Available at: http://davidcampany.com/bill-brandts-art-of-the-document/ (Accessed: 21 December 2016).

Clarke, G. (1997) The photograph: A visual and cultural history. New York: Oxford University Press.

David Campany (2016) Available at: http://davidcampany.com/ (Accessed: 21 December 2016).

Der Querschnitt (2016) in Wikipedia. Available at: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Der_Querschnitt (Accessed: 21 December 2016).

generator, metatags (2015) Welcome to the photography of Bill Brandt. Available at: http://www.billbrandt.com/ (Accessed: 21 December 2016).

generator, metatags (no date) Toppers and cloth caps. Available at: http://www.billbrandt.com/bill-brandt-a-statement-1/ (Accessed: 21 December 2016).

(No Date) Available at: https://www.oca-student.com/sites/default/files/oca-content/key-resources/res-files/heuvel_discussingdocumentary.pdf (Accessed: 23 December 2016).

Sontag, S. (2008) On photography. London: Penguin Classics.

Tériade (2016) in Wikipedia. Available at: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/T%C3%A9riade (Accessed: 21 December 2016).

Legacy documentary for social change – Chris Killip

As well as getting us to look at the work of the Exit Photography group this part of the course also  mentions Chris Killip’s In Flagrante, and Nick Danziger‘s The British; Danziger is said to have been influenced by the work of earlier photographer Bill Brandt.

Chris Killip photographed the industrial decline in the North East during the late 1970’s and early 1980’s and stated:

You didn’t have to be a genius to realise how important it was to get in and photograph it before it all fell apart…The strange thing is, I didn’t realise how quickly it would go.

The book was first published in 1988, a year that began with Margaret Thatcher becoming the longest-serving British prime minister of the century; reissued in 2016 it is described as ‘a landmark in British documentary photography.’

An article in The Guardian tells us that Killip insists that the main thrust of his book is not ‘the human fallout of Thatcherite policies in the industrial north-east of England,’ and this sentiment is echoed in an interview he gave for TIME, but it is difficult to separate the images from the social and political climate of the day. Also the fact that the original introduction has been removed, replaced with the short and matter of fact statements: ‘The photographs date from 1973 to 1985 when the prime ministers were: Edward Heath, Conservative (1970-1974), Harold Wilson, Labour (1974-1976), James Callaghan, Labour (1976-1979), Margaret Thatcher, Conservative (1979-1990).’ seems to imply a finger of blame being pointed.

Like many of those who went before, Killip embedded himself within the community, making friends with many of his subjects  and capturing many aspects of their lives, although the Photographers Gallery blurb informs us it took six years to gain the trust of the residents in Seacoal. However I also found an interview where Killip tells us it took eight

It is really interesting to read the TIME article and discover his reasons for the re-issue:

Going back to look at the original book startled me as the reproduction now looked rather grim, far too heavy in the blacks with a consequent loss of detail. At the time –1988 – the printing was the best that could be done in England.

I wouldn’t put the images across the gutter
The reproduction would have to be very good
I would find a way to solve the over identification with the “Thatcher Years”

I made the dummy images digitally and they were very high quality and I started thinking how important this quality was and as I was only using the right hand page there was no see-through coming on to another image. If the reproduction was good enough and enough space was left around the image you could just cut them out and frame them, I very much liked this possibility.

The book is very unadorned, it had become very important to me to let the images speak without interference, as I believe that they have their own eloquence and in some cases a degree of ambiguity – a mixture that leaves the work open to interpretation by the viewer.

I found it very intriguing that a book held up to be a classic is no longer ‘liked’ by the originator…I wonder how often that happens? I found another great article here which gave me the added information that all the images were ‘all made in black and white, on 4×5 film.’

Lucky enough to see some of his work on display at the Photographers Gallery when he was nominated for the Deutsche Borse photography prize 2013, I recently purchased a signed edition of SeacoalThe images definitely appear to be from another era, not one during which I was in my late teens/early 20’s, although having said that I can still connect with them due to the visual clues in some and personal memories of that decade.

The B&W photographs, even if lighter in tone, still depict a harsh, bleak environment and a difficult way of life. I sometimes think that documentary photographers never fully catch the joyous side as they get tempered by the ‘serious’ feel of monochrome.

I just popped over to my old blog to re-read a short review of his work…are my opinions the same? In some respects yes, although I think my initial response to it was due to the other bodies of work it as displayed with being so completely different in approach…and I’m still not totally convinced by Henna’s body of work, although many artists/photographers do borrow from Google Earth, or similar, and I enjoy their creativity.

Compared to the rest of the exhibition he was the only ‘straight’ photographer on display and there was a sense of comfort in looking at the ‘known.’ I think I experienced something similar when at the Feminist Avant–Garde of the 1970’s study day; when viewing such a variety of work it is easy to overlook or dismiss things you ‘don’t get’ in favour of the more familiar. I still stand by what I wrote when I said ‘the pictures still have an eloquence, a narrative and a lesson on knowing your subject. It indicates another way of working is just as valid as the newer approaches being undertaken today…’

I don’t view it as a competition, documentary should be THIS or if it’s in colour it won’t have an impact. With the change in technology and the way we now view and receive images via the internet and digital technologies, today’s generation will be used to seeing serious news in colour and ideas presented in a more abstract fashion. My son totally dismisses B&W films which is a shame as they still have a story to tell and are a valid art form. Likewise B&W photography versus colour. As time has passed I think I am even more open to the newer styles of presenting visual information but yeah…still love a bit of B&W documentary.


Killip, C. (2014) Chris Killip: In flagrante. Available at: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/photography/11145782/Chris-Killip-In-Flagrante.html?frame=3064296 (Accessed: 8 December 2016).

Killip, C. (no date) Search. Available at: http://we-english.co.uk/blog/2009/03/03/chris-killip-in-flagrante/ (Accessed: 8 December 2016).

Laurent, O. and Matutschovsky, N. (2016) Chris Killip’s celebrated ‘in flagrante’ makes its return. Available at: http://time.com/4185463/chris-killip-martin-parr-in-flagrante/ (Accessed: 8 December 2016).

O’Hagan, S. (2016) In flagrante Two by Chris Killip review – bleakness and boredom in sharp focus. Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/books/2016/feb/21/in-flagrante-two-review-chris-killip-thatcher-sea-coal-north-east-england-northumberland-industrial- (Accessed: 8 December 2016).

Photographers’Gallery, T. (2016) Books – the photographers’ gallery. Available at: http://thephotographersgallery.org.uk/seacoal (Accessed: 8 December 2016).