Bill Brandt

Crowded, Improvised Air-Raid Shelter in a Liverpool Street Tube Tunnel

1940, later print

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Not on display

Bill Brandt 1904–1983
Photograph, gelatin silver print on paper
Image: 233 × 196 mm
Accepted by HM Government in Lieu of Inheritance Tax and allocated to Tate 2019


Bill Brandt was born into an Anglo-German family in Hamburg. Beginning his career as an apprentice to a portrait photographer in Vienna in 1927, he went on to work in Man Ray’s (1890–1976) Paris studio from 1929–30; he began to acquire a reputation as a major photographer in his own right, with night photography becoming a particular speciality. He moved to London in the early 1930s and Britain became his adopted home. Brandt used black and white photography, and especially its ability to provide strong contrasts of light and shade, to document the social extremes of life in Britain, particularly those of the capital city (see, for example, Tate P15014P15017). In 1936 he published The English at Home, which highlighted stark societal contrasts. The publication A Night in London followed two years later. Brandt also began to contribute to magazines such as Lilliput (1939–45), Picture Post and Harper’s Bazaar. After the Second World War he focused on portraiture, landscape and the nude.

Brandt made the city one of the most frequent subjects for his photography and his images of London and other cities in the 1930s demonstrate the anthropological approach he adopted. Photographic historian David Campany has described how, during this key period in his work, his aim was not simply to document: ‘Brandt was drawn to the rituals and customs of daily life, to what he saw as the deeply unconscious ways in which people inhabit their social roles. For him to photograph these minutiae was not simply to document but to estrange through a heightened sense of atmosphere, theatrical artifice and a dreamlike sensibility.’ (David Campany, ‘The Career of a Photographer, The Career of a Photograph: Bill Brandt’s Art of the Document’, in Making History: Art and Documentary in Britain from 1929 to Now, exhibition catalogue, Tate Liverpool 2006, p.54.)

In 1937 Brandt travelled north to the industrial towns of Halifax, Jarrow, Newcastle and Sheffield to photograph one of Britain’s most economically depressed areas. His images show a harsh and poverty-stricken existence, at a time of mass unemployment throughout the region. Halifax Pawnbroker, West Riding, Nr Bradford, 1937 1937 (Tate P15013) shows an elderly man standing, with his hands clasped behind his back, outside a rundown building that houses a pawnbroker’s shop, indicated by the symbol of the three balls. Two small children play on the railings on the street corner. It is an image that articulates the desperation of an impoverished community. Hail, Hell & Halifax 1937 1937 (Tate P15002) depicts vast plumes of black smoke emerging from the silhouette of a tall factory chimney. In the foreground a group of children can be seen running down a cobbled street alongside the railway tracks; they are dwarfed by the monolithic factory buildings beyond.

A Sikh Family Sheltering in an Alcove Where Coffins Once Stood, in the Crypt of
Christ Church, Spitalfields 1940 (Tate P15005) and Crowded, Improvised AirRaid Shelter in Liverpool Street Tube Tunnel, 1940 Underground Shelter in London 1940 (Tate P15011) were taken when Brandt was asked by the Ministry of Information to document the makeshift air-raid shelters in the London Underground and in church crypts during World War II. Brandt produced thirty-nine photographs during November 1940, before contracting influenza. A portfolio of these were sent to U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt to show the spirit of Londoners during the Blitz. Later, Brandt wrote about how, during the war, he liked to walk around and photograph the empty city at night: ‘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 stage scenery’ (quoted in Jay and Warburton 1999, p.103). The Angel, a Riverside Pub in Docklands, c.1940s 1940 (Tate P15023) documents one such example of a deserted setting.

Further reading
Bill Jay and Nigel Warburton, Brandt: The Photography of Bill Brandt, London 1999.
Paul Delany, Bill Brandt: A Life, London 2004.
Bill Brandt: Shadow and Light, exhibition catalogue, Museum of Modern Art, New York 2013.

Helen Delaney
April 2019

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