Read ‘Bill Brandt’s Art of the Document’ by David Campany. 

Write a short summary .

How did B&W become such a respected and trusted medium in documentary?

Campany discusses how a single image may reappear in various guises over a period of time and how it can be re-invented .

Bill Brandt was born in Germany and studied with Man Ray before moving to London.
His well known image Parlour Maid and Under-Parlourmaid Ready to Serve Dinner , originally entitled Dinner is Served , was taken as part of a series of 63 images that formed a study of the English highlighting the marked contrasts between the social classes of the time.  Published as a book that is now considered an exemplary body of documentary work The English at Home had little impact at the time of its publication in1936.

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Using family and friends Brandt  staged much of his documentary work , the image itself is a timeless study of the British class system of the 1930’s. As an immigrant he was able to observe English society with an outsiders eye. Neither of the women look directly at the camera , suggestive of their subservience , the  system was designed to keep the working class in their place. Were the women directed to look away in order to reinforce the message being conveyed ? The older woman’s facial expression is thought provoking , she looks most discontent and resentful with her lot , she was in fact employed by a relative of Brandt’s . Regardless of whether it was manipulated or not the image captures and reveals the social mores of the era.

In 1938 the image re-appeared in the art review magazine Verve alongside a reproduction of a Matisse drawing , becoming a piece of art in its own right. Interestingly the image was excluded from the 1939 Picture Post photo storyThe Perfect Parlourmaid that included mainly new but also a few earlier images of Brandt’s work. As a stand alone image it conveys a powerful message perhaps unsuitable for a publication purporting to represent the model employee happy in her position. Weekly publications such as this gained wide but short lived audiences.

By the mid 1940’s Brandt lost his enthusiasm for documentary photography and throughout the 1950’s concentrated on landscape and portraiture. His reputation as an art photographer grew and he started to print his negatives starkly , softer grey tones giving way to deep black and bright white blocks of print. The 1966 compilation of Brandt’s work Shadow of Light included the Parlour Maid and Under-Parlourmaid Ready to Serve Dinner newly processed. The harsher processing highlights the shiny tableware and glasses , whilst the parlour maids’ fade into the background , creating new and complex dynamics within the frame.

In its various incarnations the image can be linked to Brandt’s seemingly paradoxical metamorphosis from traditional factual photographer to modernist , and was included in the 1969 show of his work at the New York Museum of Modern Art . Parlour Maid and Under-Parlourmaid Ready to Serve Dinner not only obtained status as a work of art but continued to gain new viewers whilst retaining its relevance as an observation of an era long gone.

Black and white imagery has an ageless quality that is associated with serious photography. Economically black and white film was quicker , easier and less expensive to process than colour. Whilst amateur practitioners embraced colour photography it was frowned upon by many art photographers who regarded it as lacking in good taste and felt it was “too embedded in commercial culture to be used by serious artists “ (Warner Marien, 2010, pg. 362).

Post- war colour photography was considered by the politically committed documentarists of the 1970’s to represent “a British idyll” (Williams , Bright, 2007 ,pg. 13 ) that for many did not exist . Aiming to expose social inequality with unflinching black and white imagery “documentary photographers of the 1970’s worked in colour only from commercial necessity” (Williams , Bright, 2007 ,pg. 137 ). Classic and credible , black and white photography continues to be seen as trustworthy and truthful.

Bibliography / References

Warner Marien Mary . (2010 ) Photography:A Cultual History Third edition, Laurence King , London, UK

Williams Val and Bright Susan . (2007) How we Are Photographing Britain from the 1840’s to the present , Tate publishing , London, UK

http://www.vam.ac.uk/users/node/723 Accessed 16/11/2014


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