Based on the impulse to look at everything afresh, Modernist photography could not help but deliver a jumble of perspectives, on both sides of the Atlantic
Modernism was a crazy-paving kind of movement. Based on the impulse to look at everything afresh, it could not help but deliver a jumble of perspectives. And, as two new photography exhibitions highlight, there were disjoints—sometimes slight, sometimes considerable—between the way things were seen on either side of the Atlantic.
“Photographers should follow their own judgement and not the fads and dictates of others,” Bill Brandt wrote in 1948. However, in Bill Brandt/Henry Moore, an inspired exhibition pairing at The Hepworth Wakefield in Yorkshire, we find the photographer’s enthusiasms reflected in the work of one of Britain’s greatest sculptors.
Brandt and Moore were contemporaries with similar aesthetics but wildly different backgrounds. Brandt was born in Hamburg in 1904, yet, following a period of Freudian analysis in Vienna, disowned his German origins and reinvented himself as an English gentleman. Moore was the son of a Yorkshire miner, born in 1898. The two were in tune, however, in their shared fascination for biomorphic forms.
The Wakefield exhibition shows how the pair created reversals of each other’s work. Brandt became famous for nudes that resembled geological shapes, while Moore turned bronze, wood and marble into bulbous torsos, heads and limbs.
In Britain, Brandt initially garnered a reputation as an ethnographer, with noir-inspired series on the bustle of Billingsgate Market, the coke-choked lives of Durham coalminers and, most notably, people sheltering in the London Underground during the Blitz. “The blackout was absolutely, fantastically, beautiful,” he recalled. His status changed in the late 1940s with his first major solo show, at MoMA in New York. Martina Droth from the Yale Center for British Art, who has curated the Wakefield exhibition, notes how Brandt was swiftly recognised as an artist in America. “But in Britain there wasn’t a MoMA to adopt him.”
Brandt believed that anything went in the pursuit of the perfect picture. And he considered the darkroom process part of the creative act; using the enlarger as an editing tool he manipulated his images, cropping and retouching them and heightening atmosphere to create his signature chiaroscuro. His prints are as dense as granite.
Henry Moore is not a figure one immediately associates with photography but, like Brandt, he recognised its power and flexibility. The sculptor kept a tight control over the photographic representation of his maquettes and monumental works. He also used photographs on his outdoor projects, exploring the seasonal changes in light and helping to shape his public image as a hands-on chiseller.
Moore sat for society snappers such as Cecil Beaton, Lord Snowden and Norman Parkinson (and Brandt photographed him in his studio repeatedly from the 1940s through to the 1970s) but he also shot extensively himself using a series of Leicas and Hasselblads. He processed and printed at home and disseminated the results through catalogues, magazines and books. And for a quarter of a century he employed a personal photographer.
Brandt’s and Moore’s work was modern in the way that Ted Hughes’ poetry and the films of Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger were modern: with one eye on the zeitgeist and the other on the country’s pagan past. They referenced the changing mores of the post-war period and the potency of myths and monoliths.
The cutting edge of the ancient is palpable in Brandt’s pared-back 1947 study of Stonehenge. Taken during the depths of a winter that brought Britain to a standstill, it is both specific and abstract, a monochrome barcode made up of sky, stone and snow which featured on the cover of Picture Post (right). “The way he made that picture is all choice,” observes Droth. “It’s not a documentary picture. That’s his raw material and then he turns it into something that he wants to evoke.”
More idiosyncratic subject matter appears in the book which accompanies the exhibition. This resurrects Brandt’s forgotten “assemblages”, his 1970s collages of beachcombed debris, compositions of starfish, coral and feathers that were boxed in Perspex and photographed. It was a late labour of love that verged on the sculptural.
His most famous series, however, remain his nudes. In the wake of the war he captured unsettling images of women spread-eagled and distorted in the mansion flats of Hampstead and Mayfair (perhaps unsurprisingly, he was a great admirer of Hitchcock). And, on the beaches of Sussex and Normandy, he produced wide-angle shots of hips, shoulders and ears which appear like giant pebbles, cliffs and rock-pools. These silver prints are sinister, not sexy; they feature carriage clocks and moths, shingle and seaweed. They are hardly the stuff of Pirelli calendars.
One of Brandt’s London nudes features in Breaking Away, a selling exhibition at the Richard Nagy Gallery on New Bond Street. Organised by the American photo-dealer Michael Shapiro, it features some 50 Modern masterpieces by an international roll call of photographers, although the selection is weighted towards the Americans. Among the works on view, dating from the 1920s to the 1950s, are masterpieces by Ansel Adams, Robert Frank, Berenice Abbott, Imogen Cunningham and Irving Penn.
The show’s title, Shapiro explains, refers to the “radical stance” these photographers took against traditional photography. “The early Modernists were emphatic about the fact that the camera could make pictures unlike any other medium.” Shapiro shows us images of migrant workers, animal bones, dunes, garage doors and cellos.
Abstracted eroticism was universally popular. Like Brandt, Detroit-born Harry Callahan treated the body as a landscape. In Eleanor: (nude from rear) he turned the contours of his wife’s thighs into a spindly tree-like form, with the same love of line that flowed through his pictures of reeds and weeds. And, over in California, Edward Weston cropped his lover’s head out of a portrait, creating a nude that is all bust and elbows, angles and arches, and no character. Whether this is objectification or adoration is open to interpretation.
But, in general, the Americans kept their powder dry. “In my eyes the Europeans were more experimental,” Shapiro observes. He cites the rayographs and photograms, both “pushing the limits” of Man Ray—an American turned Parisian—and the Bauhaus antics of László Moholy-Nagy.
One of Shapiro’s Man Ray prints, a daring 1930s image of his model and muse Lee Miller, highlights the cultural difference between the continents. “She is in sort of S&M stuff. She’s got this leash around her neck or something,” Shapiro explains. “I mean who was doing that in the States? Sadly, we’re kind of a conservative country.”
There was no harking back to prehistory in American photography. But at the turn of the 20th century pioneers like Alfred Steiglitz and Edward Steichen were still charting romantic waters. “They had at least a few toes in the Pictorialist period,” Shapiro maintains. “And that was about imitating Impressionist painting.”
As the decades passed things became more inventive. Ansel Adams injected storm clouds and sharp shadows into his images of the American West while others were preoccupied with the elevation of objects. Shapiro cites a Paul Strand shot of a cine-camera taken in 1922. “He’s taking pictures of his movie camera. And he photographed it like one would photograph architecture. It’s this bold, geometric, in-your-face statement of an otherwise ordinary machine.”
The American Modernists focused on a nation making headway, framing its steaming liners, diverging railroads and towering skylines. This was the iconography of muscle-flexing. “Before that it was just a bunch of trees and gardens,” Shapiro observes. And then, of course, they photographed the fall: Margaret Bourke-White, Dorothea Lange and Walker Evans, who are all represented in Breaking Away, recorded the jarring, often absurd, juxtapositions of the Depression.
In Europe it was the First World War that was the great spur, as photographers sought a new visual language to make sense of a ruined world. Brandt and Moore would later employ that language when they focused on London during the Second World War, documenting the home front as a hive of fraught, but resilient, figures.
Seen in tandem, these exhibitions illuminate a complex transatlantic conversation. There is whimsy in Manhattan and dismay in the Dust Bowl, naked legs in Belgravia and eggshells in the home counties. It is a kaleidoscope of vintage vantage points that support Brandt’s conviction that “the young photographer must discover what really excites him visually. He must discover his own world”.
“Bill Brandt/Henry Moore” is at The Hepworth Wakefield, 7 February-31 May.
“Bill Brandt/Henry Moore”, edited by Martina Droth and Paul Messier, is published by Yale Center of British Art in association with Yale University Press, £50.
“Breaking Away: Modernism in Photography since World War I”, presented by Michael Shapiro Photographs and Richard Nagy Ltd., is at Richard Nagy Gallery, London, 6 February-27 March