If you’ll excuse the pun, Paul Delany’s biography of the man commonly dubbed ‘the greatest British photographer’ brings one thing sharply into focus. For Bill Brandt was not, as it happens, British at all, but was born in 1904 to German parents of Russian extraction — a fact he denied vehemently all his adult life. This rather fundamental inconvenience raises all manner of questions about psychological identity and the ethics and artifice of self-image-making. It also forces us to re-open the century-old can of worms as to whether an artist’s work can be more profitably understood by having some knowledge of their private life.
The definitive word on this issue came in 1919 from Brandt’s contemporary T. S. Eliot, who announced that ‘the progress of an artist is a continual self-sacrifice, a continual extinction of personality’. Delany —who by the way is an English Literature, not Art History, professor — has taken the opposite approach: his assumption is that unearthing more about Brandt’s personality will assist our understanding of his art. Brandt, who photographed Eliot in 1945, would no doubt have been horrified; he went to famously extreme lengths to hide the details of his life from the outside world. Quite apart from the subterfuge of his birth, he changed his name three times, and even from an early age, as Delany explains with self-evident irony, people instinctively felt of this supreme visual penetrator that ‘you couldn’t look into him’. Despite this — or indeed because of this — the more we do manage to ‘look into’ Brandt, the more fascinating his photographs become.
Tom Hopkinson, Brandt’s editor at Picture Post, offered the perfect converse to Eliot’s dictum when he claimed Brandt ‘projected [himself] onto whatever he photographed’ and indeed, once Delany starts to expose Brandt’s life, it is hard not to see it reflected in his lens. He had a materially privileged childhood but revolted against it (to a point); his decision to study Britain’s working class for his first book, The English at Home (1936), seems to have had its basis in aesthetic rather than overtly political ideals. His formative experiences of a draconian father and tyrannical boarding school — and the commensurate familial resentment — almost certainly had their artistic consequences, as did the years he spent recovering from TB at a sanatorium in Davos. Similarly influential were his apprenticeship to the Surrealist photographer Man Ray, his friendships with such other greats as Brassa