Bill Brandt’s first book, The English at Home, published in 1936, exhibited a brilliant fascination not only with light and shade, but with the costumes of class divide – miners’ caps and public school boaters, maids’ pinnies and cricket whites. By the 1950s, however, his English interiors had tended to do away with clothing. His postwar series of nudes found ways of making flesh both sensual and abstract; his camera always seemed as interested in the rooms in which his models lived as in their bodily presence.
This picture, included in the current Tate Britain exhibition of Brandt’s work, is a celebrated example of that tension. The contours of the girl’s face lend her a sculptural quiet; the darkness of her single visible eye lies in contrast to the pair of windows staring out from the frame, one open, one shut. Light crashes in. Squint a little at the chest of drawers and the girl disappears into the setting entirely; focus on her and the rest becomes a place of her Alice in Wonderland imagining.
There is of course a third presence beyond the girl and the room, that of Brandt himself. Biographers have read into images like this one the controlling instincts of the voyeur. The quiet Anglo-German – with a whispering voice his editor at Picture Post described as being as “loud as a moth” – insisted that his intention was not to dominate but to withdraw from his compositions, to let strangeness take its course. Often in this period he used the wide angle of an old wooden Kodak camera used by police at crime scenes, which took all the evidence in. “Instead of photographing what I saw, I photographed what the camera was seeing,” he said of these pictures. “I interfered very little and the lens produced anatomical images and shapes which my eyes had never observed.”