Paul Delany makes a strong claim in this comprehensive biography that Bill Brandt (1904-1983) deserves to be called the greatest British photographer of the 20th century. The strength of this claim can also be assessed in the flesh, as it were, for a retrospective, coinciding with the centenary of Brandt's birth, is on show at the Victoria and Albert Museum at the moment. Many who are knowledgeable about the history of photography and of its burgeoning status as an art medium would probably agree with Delany's assessment. Others, historians, critics, even those photographers with a deep interest in the culture of their trade, might be more measured in their assessment. Putting Brandt on top of the pile is a big ask, as the football commentators are fond of saying.
This carefully assembled biography supplies many intriguing facts about Brandt's enigmatic life, and moreover a framework of critical analysis designed to be robust enough to read his images to just such a laudable end. Yet I have the feeling that even after perusing (and enjoying) the fruits of Delany's diligent and authoritative research, there may not be enough here to justify his man taking top step of the podium.
To start with, does it make any sense to designate this or that artist "the greatest"? Does it help us to appreciate or understand the place of photography in contemporary visual culture through the use of hierarchical ideas about the medium? There's ample evidence that Brandt produced many fascinating and striking images - during a remarkably long career of more than 50 years that veered from social documentary, reportage and editorial work to a highly constructed form of portraiture and nude studies - and that he managed to make a considerable mark on our visual culture. It is also true that he lived a strange life, and that his deepest fantasies and fears may well have been appropriated by him to serve as material for his work, as the motor for the symbolic and allusive images that are widely recognised as his main contribution to "art". Let us forget superlatives and place him among the great (but perhaps not the good). He is all the more interesting for that.
Delany is an English scholar who has also written a biography of Rupert Brooke. There is an interesting parallel here, for Brooke might seem to stand for the quintessentially English poet, while Brandt always aimed to be the quintessential photographer of the English. Delany's approach to Brandt is informed by both literary theory and psychoanalysis. In neither respect is his approach heavy-handed, but these perspectives do colour his biographical work, which in this case could rely on few facts emanating from Brandt himself, but a wealth of circumstantial evidence.
Perhaps Brandt always feared becoming too successful. He was a man who liked to keep his true identity a closely guarded secret. Although born in Germany, Hermann Wilhelm Brandt was as British as his parents: his father by birth, his mother by marriage. His father was interned during the First World War by the Germans. Yet, until almost the end of his life, Brandt insisted that he was born in England (in South London) and to Russian parents. However, he grew up in an upper-middle class family in Hamburg, and the first 25 years of his life were spent in an essentially German cultural context, a fact he kept well hidden once he had settled in Britain in the mid-1930s.
The other great secrets of his life are, it would seem, sexual, or at least connected to his complex relations with women. He lived in one or other sort of ménage-à-trois for much of his adult life, was married three times and probably enjoyed quite a few other relationships. It is rumoured that he "enjoyed" the favours of some of the prostitutes who modelled for his famous nudes of the 1940s and 1950s. He was secretive and suspicious, underwent psychoanalysis on at least two occasions, and was both tubercular and diabetic. He had the benefit of a private income and probably never had to work for a living. Even when a British resident, he spent a good part of his time outside Britain.
This is all rich material for a biography, particularly one in which the author can deploy his skills of literary and psychoanalytic interpretation to reconstruct the main features of Brandt's life. Delany often uses the cultural context supplied by novels, for instance those by Thomas Mann and Robert Musil, to evoke the experiences of the young Brandt, or delves into psychoanalytic theory: he is most informative on the type of non-Freudian analysis Brandt enjoyed on the couch of Wilhelm Stekel in Vienna in the late 1920s. He also relies on the reminiscences of those who knew or loved Brandt, and has interviewed rather more than the usual suspects for such a biography.
Yet the book seems never quite to grasp its prey, its subject infuriatingly elusive, despite a monumental effort to snare him in its net. It is as if Brandt's own distinctive voice (he never managed to lose a slight German accent) cannot be heard. This is hardly the fault of Delany, whose biographical detective work is in most respects impeccable: there are a small number of very minor misinterpretations of photographic history and technique, but otherwise he gives a careful and highly illuminating account of the life and cultural context of his subject.
The real culprit seems to be the photographer himself: Brandt was always assiduous in covering his tracks and left little in the way of correspondence. He was so paranoid in later life that his carefully constructed identity would be unmasked - not the English gent but the Central European interloper - that he declined to attend the opening of a major retrospective of his work at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. In his last years, weakened by his diabetes, he was so fearful of being surreptitiously recorded that he would ask visitors to open their bags for his inspection.
It is hard to imagine that a better biography of Brandt could be written, particularly given the problems that its subject has left posterity. It is a work that tells us a lot about the how and the why of Brandt's work. Yet, in the final analysis, Brandt himself remains the very enigma he hoped to be: the creator of a substantial and fascinating oeuvre, but a man of the very shadows that are so characteristic of his photographs.
Peter Hamilton is lecturer in sociology, Open University. There are exhibitions of photographs by Bill Brandt at the Victoria and Albert Museum until July 25 and at the National Portrait Gallery until August 30.
A Brandt: A Life
Author - Paul Delany
Publisher - Cape
Pages - 338
Price - £35.00
ISBN - 0 224 05280 2