Bill Brandt: Perspective of Nudes @Marlborough

JTF (just the facts): A total of 35 black-and-white photographs, framed in white and matted, and hung against blue/grey walls in a single room space on the second floor of the gallery. All of the works are gelatin silver prints mounted on board, made between 1945 and 1979, and printed later. Each print is sized roughly 14×12 and no edition information was provided. (Installation shots below.)

Comments/Context: Back in 1961, Bill Brandt’s now-classic photobook Perspective of Nudes was published. It gathered together 90 of the British photographer’s black and white photographs of the female nude, taken between the mid 1940s and 1960. Some were made indoors, in darkly lit Victorian rooms, while others ventured outside, to the rocky beaches of the Sussex coast and northern France. Most were taken up close with a wide angle lens, which allowed Brandt to play with different kinds of elongation and distortion.

This show brings together a selection of works from the book, encouraging us to revisit Brandt’s eye from the vantage point of the 21st century. The prints on view were all made in the 1970s, when Brandt moved to a slightly larger print size (roughly 14×12 inches) than his original vintage prints (which were roughly 9×7 inches). While those earlier prints were often roughly hand-retouched by Brandt to further clarify and amplify certain contrasts and lines, these prints have in a sense been cleaned up and perfected, reflecting the evolution of his aesthetic thinking.

In many ways, Brandt’s vision of the nude was a direct reaction to what had come before. His compositions both reject the setup of most classical nudes and twist the elemental simplicity of the Modernist nude into something hardly recognizable as related. What emerged was a wholesale photographic reinvention of the genre, where bodies (and cropped body parts) were pushed toward formal experiments that had more to do with sculpture than any of the two-dimensional artistic mediums, and in some cases, were freighted with dark psychological overtones. The photographs were certainly radical for their particular art historical moment, employing deliberate distortion, extreme contrast, and inventive framing in ways that were altogether new and original.

In the sixty years between the release of Perspective of Nudes and our present, our awareness of the relative positions of the person behind the camera and the one in front of it has become more pronounced, and we have become more observant (and critical) of the ways white male photographers have chosen to portray women, especially when nude. I do think it is clear that Brandt’s nudes were made by a man, but I don’t think that fact dilutes their compositional innovation, even when the compositions edge toward the strangely charged and surreal. As seen in the images here, Brandt was a revolutionary when it came to form, and while he certainly took liberties with bending and distorting female bodies, his goal was to push his compositions toward elemental truths that hadn’t been seen so boldly before. He undeniably took risks, and those risks remain freshly upsetting, but in ways that test the edges of the medium rather than exploit his subjects.

Shows like this one challenge us to see vintage works (especially those that we think we already know and appreciate) with the eyes of a newcomer. In looking again at Brandt’s interior nudes, I was struck with just how dark they are, the bodies pressed forward into the glare of the light and the backgrounds left to drift toward shadowy black recesses and empty spaces that only fleetingly imply any kind of narrative. This darkness has often been characterized as almost romantic, but this time I saw it as more weary and dated, with Brandt using that aging world as a place to brashly stage more blunt and provocative exchanges. I was also much more aware of how Brandt used wall moldings, floor inlays, and seemingly randomly placed abstract paintings as compositional foils for formal interplay and contrast; I’d always focused on the bodies, but now those adjacent lines of perspective and blocky geometries seemed intricately placed in relation to the isolated lines and forms in the bodies.

My experience of Brant’s outdoor nudes was similarly changed. On the beach, Brandt’s cropping becomes even more extreme, with various body parts (including fingers, knees, a belly button, and even an ear) alternately taking center stage, and his tendency toward washing out to expunge any surface detail is more pronounced. So of course, we get entranced by those sculptural forms. What I noticed more this time was how he used that abstraction to relate to the surrounding landscape, in particular the rough texture of the beach and the rocky cliffs and watery horizons in the background. Again, there is the sense of him pulling the body into the immediate foreground, so close that it interrupts our view. He then uses the flow of hair to match frothy waves, an angled elbow to echo the fall of a cliff, and the lines of stacked knees to interact with the horizon line. When we look again, we see that shadows and dark areas in bodies line up with landscape features, and pebbled beaches provide a playground for similarly sized fingers. The compositions are so very smart, and have aged well.

Coming on the heels of the 2013 Brandt retrospective at MoMA (reviewed here), this show of later prints doesn’t offer us much that we haven’t seen before, or better elsewhere. But Brandt’s nudes certainly remain vital and alive, in contrast to the way that many photographic female nudes from the 20th century feel hopelessly tired and dated. These images (and others from the series) brashly upended the status quo, and still challenge us to see bodies in ways we might not have imagined. For those new to Brandt’s nudes, his works will recalibrate your thoughts on what is possible, and for those who have known them for years, they absolutely still have the power to provoke and surprise.

Collector’s POV: The prints in this show are priced between $8500 and $20000. Brandt’s work is consistently available in the secondary markets, with dozens of prints on offer each year. Recent prices have ranged from $2000 for lesser known works and later prints to more than $90000 for vintage prints of his most iconic images.

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JTF (just the facts): Published in 2021 by Rue Du Bouquet (here). Hardcover (23.5 x 32 cm), 88 pages, with 56 color photographs. Includes an essay by Laura Serani. Design ... Read on.

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