Last updated: March 13, 2013 6:18 pm

Bill Brandt: Shadow and Light, Museum of Modern Art, New York

This ravishingly moody show is a taut reading of one of the 20th century’s great black-and-white masters
©Bill Brandt

Bill Brandt was at his best when delving into darkness. He savoured the soot-stained knuckles of coal miners, the raven-slick walls of London alleys, and the burly silhouettes of shadowed couples in dim rooms. By the early 1930s the photographer had distilled his sensibility of romantic bleakness, anticipating the expressive chiaroscuro of Citizen Kane and post-war Hollywood. In the 1940s he dipped into his inky palette to conjure the wartime city at night, stoic in its near-invisibility. And when he turned his lens to landscape, he found solace in gloominess. The Marlborough Downs, the mountains of Skye and the Yorkshire moors all unfurl in velvety shades of jet.

The Museum of Modern Art’s ravishingly moody new Brandt show fleshes out a career marked by a few much-published masterpieces. It’s a taut reading of one of the 20th century’s great black-and-white masters.

Brandt was born in 1904 into a wealthy Anglo-American family in Hamburg. Raised in Germany, he settled in England in 1934 and immediately turned his camera upon his new countrymen. Two books from the 1930s – The English at Home and A Night in London – scrutinise the way class hierarchies etched themselves into architecture, dress, and even posture. One glance at “Alice at the Crooked Billet”, with her brownish teeth, pasty skin and thick, stubby fingers, and you’d recognise her as a barmaid even if you overlooked the pint she’s presenting to the camera. The intellectuals at a party in Bloomsbury are marked by their tweedy suits and tense bearing. One slender young man leans on an elbow, hand across his mouth as he pauses to gather a thought; another pulls his shoulders back, directing his intent gaze at the speaker. Deep thoughts are being shared.

Brandt clearly internalised the aesthetic of his Parisian forebear Eugène Atget, whose eerie shop windows taught him to see inanimate objects as proxies for people. In a Bond Street haberdasher’s window, rows of top hats and bowlers line up along shelves, forming a minimalist grid. The camera’s flash, reflected in the back wall, throws these talismans of upper-class life into monumental relief and gives them a menacing air.

He also mooched off Brassaï’s surrealist-tinged “Paris de nuit”, the Hungarian photographer’s ode to his adopted home. But Brassaï was forced to stalk his prey, staking out the city’s seedier corners to expose its everyday barbarities. He saw himself as a journalist, a romantic with a clear eye and a brazen lens. Brandt, on the other hand, cared less for individuals than ways of life. He preferred archetypes, and in this he was much more in tune with his German contemporary, August Sander, who methodically catalogued the reigning social order by grouping his finds into categories: The Farmer, the Skilled Tradesman, the Woman and so on.

Brandt assumed a detached anthropological perspective, but he actually enjoyed privileged access to his specimens’ sumptuous lives. The English At Home was largely a report on his uncle Henry’s house in Kensington, west London. Pratt, the lemon-faced parlour maid, who we see poised to serve dinner in her starched white apron and crinkled cap, was its genius loci. She remains the enduring model of the British servant, the downstairs goddess of Downton Abbey. Knowing that Brandt was among the diners whom Pratt waited on changes our experience of the photograph, slightly diluting its documentary flavour. He was no disinterested observer, but a theatrical designer, interpreting his own world for public consumption. In another image of the upper classes at play, a woman enjoys a glamorous night at the opera; she is his mother, it turns out.

Brandt felt at home in the crepuscular terrain between fact and fiction, and he composed vignettes like movie stills. Take the smooching couple who, backs turned to the camera, succumb to the knife-edge of the frame. They are friends of his, embracing beneath a sprig of mistletoe that has been cropped out. Brandt tightened the scene and changed the title to “Soho Bedroom”, hinting at some deliciously sordid plot.

Eventually, he went looking for ready-made scenes that jibed with his saturnine sensibility. In the depressed northern England of the 1930s he found miners trapped in labyrinthine poverty and windowless houses. A cobblestoned ramp, so wet and slick it looks greased, rears mockingly towards the sky like a mirage of social mobility. Satanic chimneys spew grit over the rooftops and the tiny children playing below. Brandt disavowed any political motivation. He later described himself as having been “excited by the social contrast of the thirties”, a state of mind that ripened into provocative aestheticism.

The war completed the alignment between Brandt’s aesthetics and the grim world outside. On blackout nights he rambled down familiar avenues made suddenly strange. “The darkened town, lit only by moonlight, looked more beautiful than before or since,” he wrote. “It was fascinating to walk through the deserted streets and to photograph houses which I knew well, and which no longer looked three-dimensional, but flat like painted scenery.” The dome of St Paul’s Cathedral rises out of heaps of moonlit wreckage, its dusky strength a bulwark against calamity.

Brandt responded to tough times with poetic urgency, but prosperity confused him. By the postwar years he had achieved enough commercial success as a magazine photographer to fund experiments that never quite took root. His portraits varied according to subject and decade: E.M. Forster as an Edwardian relic in 1947, brilliance and shadows battling it out in his Oxford rooms; Francis Bacon looking haunted on a bleak Primrose Hill, north London, in 1963; a Jagger-ish Martin Amis, simultaneously vulnerable and arrogant, in 1974. He also embarked on a series of semi-surrealistic nudes, rhyming the contours of flesh with the topography of the countryside. But these sleek final rooms make you want to retrace your steps and roll back the years to a time that Brandt understood deeply: bruised and dogged England, full of lyrical grime.

Until August 12, www.moma.org

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