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).