No such thing as innocent seeing in photographs

Paul Delany

Photo: 'Dancing the Lambeth Walk' In 1943, the British magazine Picture Post ran a photograph of a girl dancing in front of friends on a London street. The photo was used to illustrate the unfortunate consequences of the lack of youth clubs -kids were forced to play "juvenile games" in city streets.

Just seven years later, Picture Post ran the same photo again, this time with an article that called for a return to the days before massive slum removal, when the charming sight of children playing in the streets was common.

Paul Delany The picture was the well-known "Dancing the Lambeth Walk." The photographer was Bill Brandt, one of Britain's most prolific post-World War I photo-journalists, and the subject of a biography in progress by Paul Delany, the Center's Senior Research Fellow and professor of English at Simon Fraser University. Picture Post's use of Brandt's photo for two opposite purposes likely would not have surprised or dismayed him because Brandt didn't treat photography as a quick-snap documentary window on reality.


"Nietzsche's comment that 'truth is not found, but made' has become a cliche in philosophy and literary criticism, but in photography - unlike, say, painting or literature - there is still a theory and practice that understand photography to be 'found truth,'" said Delany. While much of Brandt's work has the look of photo-documentary, it turns out to be something quite different, that is, an exploration of the contradiction between that which is found - in the tradition of "seizing the moment" - and that which is made. Brandt's walks through London often were taken without a camera in hand. Instead, if inspired by a setting, he would return later with friends and family members dressed to suggest streetwalkers, private detectives, whatever "characters" the tableau required.

Bill Brandt

That such scenes generally are seen as representing period reality is consistent with Brandt's life as a whole: surface evidence is unreliable not only in his art but his personal story. Although Brandt's work appeared regularly in British illustrated magazines and books from the 1930's into the '50's, many biographical details remain obscure. Deliberately falsifying personal information, recreating himself as an Englishman despite his Hamburg birth, Brandt has left a tough trail for scholars to follow.

"In this broader sense, all pictures have to be made rather than found because there is no such thing as innocent seeing."

"Paranoid and secretive, he left few records. Either he didn't tell what he was doing, or he distorted and lied. Why? This is part of the problem - because of his secrecy we don't really know why." Intrigued rather than daunted by his subject's secrecy, Delany has located survivors of Brandt's circle - many displaced by the war - and consulted originaldocuments to fill in details of the photographer's life and artistic development.

Dylan Thomas Brandt was born in 1904 in Hamburg into a cultured, banking family. During World War I, his English-born father was interned and Brandt was singled out at school for persecution as an "English" boy, an experience Delany describes as a "great trauma that may, in part, have led him later to create the mythology that he was English, and actually born in London."

Diagnosed with tuberculosis at 20, Brandt spent four years in sanitariums. Persuaded that TB could be cured through psychoanalysis, he went to Vienna in 1927. There he became part of a Bloomsbury-type circle around Dr. Eugenie Schwarzwald, a wealthy Jewish educator who urged him to takeup photography and arranged for work in a studio.

Photo: Picture Post, Changing Britain (Click for larger image) When Brandt moved to Paris in 1930, he committed one of his grand erasing acts by claiming he learned photography in Switzerland. Moving on to England in 1931, he began photographic explorations of London as well as other subjects, including nudes, landscapes, and portraits. Free to experiment with the medium because he was supported by his father, Brandt was never a professional photographer in the sense of having to earn a living. Even so, he became one of the most prolific of British photo-journalists.

Perhaps more than with any other great photographer, said Delany, Brandt's personal history and obsessions are intrinsic to understanding his images.

Photo: Man and Woman "From the beginning, Brandt's photographs had a double nature. They seemed to capture what was just there, but his pictures were meticulously planned in advance, like scenes from a play. All this preparation was in the service of a rich system of fantasy, growing from children's books, German expressionist cinema, psychoanalysis, and a deep knowledge of art history. What the public took for documentary realism was, to the initiated, a glimpse into the photographer's esoteric and invented world."

In Delany's view, criticism of the made - or pictorial - tradition in photography by modernists, including photographers such as Henri Cartier-Bresson and Edward Weston, misses the point. "I want to argue that the value of a picture is not limited to the moment when the shutter was open." A photographer with a particular point of view thinks about the picture he wants to make, finds and assembles its parts, spends hours in the darkroom manipulating the print, then turns it over to be published in various contexts that in themselves affect the way the picture is viewed - hence, "re-making" it yet again.