The big picture: Bill Brandt’s windows into the mind | Photography

BIll Brandt’s first book, The English at home, published in 1936, displayed a brilliant fascination not only with light and shadow, but also with the costumes of class differences – miners’ caps and public school mimics, maid’s shirts and cricket whites. In the 1950s, however, his English interior tended to do away with clothing. His post-war series of nudes found ways to make flesh both sensual and abstract; his camera always seemed as interested in the rooms in which his models lived as in their bodily presence.

This photo, included in the current Tate Britain exhibition of Brandt’s work, is a celebrated example of that tension. The contours of the girl’s face give her a sculptural calmness; the darkness of her only visible eye contrasts with the pair of windows staring out from the frame, one open, one closed. Light pours in. Look a little at the chest of drawers and the girl disappears completely into the decor; focus on her and the rest becomes a place of hers Alice in Wonderland imagining.

In addition to the girl and the room, there is of course a third presence, that of Brandt himself. Biographers have read in images like this the controlling instincts of the voyeur. The silent Anglo-German – in a whispering voice to his editor Photo message described as being as “loud as a moth” – insisted that his intention was not to dominate, but to withdraw from his compositions, to let strangeness take its course. During this period, he often used the wide-angle lens of an old wooden Kodak camera used by police at crime scenes, which recorded all the evidence. “Instead of shooting what I saw, I shot what the camera saw,” he said of these images. “I barely interfered and the lens produced anatomical images and shapes that my eyes had never seen before.”

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