Bill Brandt’s Art of the Document

Making History, Tate Publishing, 2006

‘The Career of a Photographer, the Career of a Photograph – Bill Brandt’s Art of the Document’

First published in the Tate Liverpool exhibition catalogue Making History: Art and documentary in Britain from 1929-Now, 2006.

Photographs are highly mobile images. Made at particular times, often for particular reasons they can reappear in other circumstances. Some of the most well known photos have had long lives and numerous manifestations – in magazines and books, on gallery walls, postcards and posters. Many are essentially simple, their meaning able to withstand the vagaries of cultural transit. Others are more pliable, yielding to different demands, shifting in meaning, lending themselves to different ends. Some become well known through a single, highly visible use (on television or on the cover of a newspaper). Others accrue their meaning over time.

One of the best known and most reproduced English photographs has had one of the longest and most complex careers of any photograph. Bill Brandt’s Parlourmaid and underparlourmaid ready to serve dinner, as it has come to be known, was taken in 1933. Today it has several roles. At times it is used to stand in for all of Brandt’s work; it is regarded as a milestone in documentary photography and a milestone in art photography; and it is seen as an illustrative document of life in the 1930s.

Brandt The English at Home cover 1936 Back cover of Bill Brandt, The English at Home, Batsford 1936

The English at Home pages

Its inaugural appearance in print came three years after it was taken, in Brandt’s first book The English at Home (1936).  In this little hardback comprising sixty-three photographs, Brandt traversed the country to make a pictorial survey of sorts, moving across the social classes, and between rural life and the urban city. He titled the image Dinner is Served and it appeared opposite an exterior shot titled Regency Homes in Mayfair. The two photographs are similar in form with their cluttered foregrounds, flattened vertical backgrounds and bold interplay of black and white shapes. Through this pairing we might assume that the maids worked in such a Mayfair home, perhaps even one of the homes that is actually shown. With its presentation of the disparities between the wealthy and the working class, Dinner is Served is in keeping with the overall theme of The English At Home. The book’s front cover showed a posh crowd watching the races at Ascot in their fine clothes while the back cover showed a miner’s wife and children in their cramped living quarters. The book contains several similar pairings, including a playground scene in London’s working class East End placed opposite a photo of an upper middle-class children’s party in Kensington, west London. A workmen’s restaurant contrasts with a “Clubmen’s Sanctuary”. (Pointed juxtapositions across the double page had been a staple of the German magazine Der Querschnitt, and the device soon spread through publications across Europe).

In the 1930s Brandt was drawn to the rituals and customs of daily life, with what he saw as the deeply unconscious ways people inhabit their social roles and class positions. 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. As an outsider he seemed to see English behaviour as bordering on passive automatism. Before his camera people look self-involved, fixed in their slightly old-fashioned ways, going through the motions. There are very few traces of modernity in Brandt’s work and few depictions of individuals as self-aware agents.

Brandt took a copy of The English at Home to Tom Hopkinson, then the assistant editor at Weekly Illustrated magazine. Hopkinson liked the book and Brandt received commissions. Often these involved the simple class contrasts that had become common in the popular press. His piece ‘Topper versus Bowler’ published in July 1936 was typical. Later Stefan Lorant, editor of Lilliput use Brandt’s images in satirical pairings with other photos. However Brandt’s parlourmaids image is unusual in that something of those social contrasts is at play within its frame and so the image doesn’t lend itself to juxtaposition in the same way.

We see a dressed dinner table of a well-to-do household and the attendant women. The head parlourmaid seems at first glance to express a stern resentment mixed with weariness and professional discipline, but there is a kind of blankness about her too. Her junior has the vacant expression of an adolescent, not yet able to grasp the social forces that will shape her, perhaps. A reading of the image made by the photographer Nigel Henderson is similar but more pointed:

“In his marvellous photograph the two house parlourmaids, prepared to wait at table, have eyes loaded like blunderbusses. Their starched caps and cuffs, their poker backs, mirror the terrible rectitude of learned attitudes. They have the same irritated loathing in defence of caste that shows in portraits of Evelyn Waugh.”[i]

Rhetorically, this is an image of doubles and differences. Its economy of form and content forces us to see in opposites, tapping into and reinforcing a general understanding of the social structures of class and service.  It is as barbed as The English at Home gets. There is nothing overtly angry or revolutionary in the generally restrained tone of Brandt’s book. However it was unusual in bringing different classes into one volume, leaving the viewer to reconcile the social contradictions and inequities. As the historian John Taylor put it, the book’s audience was “expected to see the relationships and differences that built up page after page.”[ii] With its disconcerting, uneasy mood across the social sweep The English at Home demanded a lot from its audience. But the English were not ready for such a book. It made little impact upon publication, and it all but vanished. However, looking back in 1978 Brandt wrote to the book’s publisher Sir Brian Batsford:

“At the time before the war you were the only publisher who was interested in my photographs. It may amuse you to hear that I saw the other day an advertisement in an American magazine in which they offered a second-hand (damaged) edition for $500. In 1936 you sold the book for five shillings and as you may remember after some years it had to be remaindered.”[iii]

In his introduction to The English at Home the critic Raymond Mortimer wrote of the photographer’s fascination with English life being tempered by a distinctive reserve, the result of Brandt being a newcomer to England: “Mr. Brandt shows himself not only to be an artist but an anthropologist. He seems to have wandered about England with the detached curiosity of a man investigating the customs of some remote and unfamiliar tribe.” Brandt was born into wealth in Hamburg and spent time in Switzerland, Austria and France. In Paris he had worked in the studio of Man Ray.  He visited England in 1928 and settled in 1931. Mortimer’s reference to art and anthropology was apt. That mix was at the heart of the poetic realism typical of much British documentary work in the interwar years. Poetic realism often adopted well-established visual devices, clichés even, that flattered the viewer with pictorial artfulness as a means to convince them of the social authority of the imagery.[iv]

But a far more radical clash of art and anthropology could be found in Surrealism. The Surrealists approached the photographic document more dialectically. They understood it as a charged, enigmatic fragment that left as much unknown as it revealed, pushing the viewer back onto their own judgment or imagination. This was an approach with which Brandt was more at ease. He remained unconvinced of the efficacy of the photograph as means of straightforward social description and he was wary of its use within projects of social reform. As he grew older he yielded ever more to his Surrealist impulses but his work from the thirties is an unresolved and elusive mix of methods and intentions that frustrates any simple reading.

Even when it was published, The English at Home was out of step. But in the last few decades it has become regarded as a classic work, not least because it is tempting to read in its mood a premonition. With hindsight we can see the insular English, unable to recognise their own image when they see it, sleepwalking into the nightmare of the second world war, awoken all too close to disaster.

brandt verve

In 1938 Parlourmaid and underparlourmaid ready to serve dinner was published in Verve, the English and French art and literature review edited and published by Tériade, who had previously worked on the art direction of the  Surrealist journal Minotaure . The photograph appeared opposite a reproduction of a painting by Henri Matisse of a dinner table, accompanied by the introduction to an essay on the culture of food by Jean-Paul Sartre.

brandt picture post 1

Picture post 2

picture post 3

 In July of the following year the English weekly magazine Picture Post carried a photo-story by Brandt titled ‘The Perfect Parlourmaid’.[v] It comprises a short text and twenty-one photographs. Most of the images were shot freshly for this assignment but a few were drawn from Brandt’s archive of photographs taken in previous years. Each is given a title and caption. Across five pages the piece narrates the activities of a head parlourmaid of a stately home, from 6.30 in the morning to 8 o’clock in the evening. She is the centre of each picture. We see her as she prepares the Master’s bath, starts to clean the silver, arranges the “family’s” breakfast, opens the drawing-room windows, superintends the housemaids, lays the luncheon table, tidies the top of the writing table, presides at the servant’s lunch, opens the door to visitors, waits table at luncheon, lays the table for dinner, writes a letter home, chooses the silver, takes an afternoon off, does a little sewing, settles the details of the menu for dinner, oversees dinner, serves nightcaps in the drawing-room and finally she sees that the house is safe. The ‘day in the life’ story was common in the illustrated press and in documentary film. Brandt himself had adopted it a few months before for Picture Post in a quite similar story about a young teasmaid. It was a comfortable, often conservative format that fitted documentary photography into a popular literary structure.

Parlourmaid and under-parlourmaid ready to serve dinner does not actually feature in the Picture Post photo-essay. We cannot know for sure why this was but looking at the other pictures it seems there may have been something too forceful about this image, too internally organised and self-sufficiently formal. In other words, too ‘whole’. The other photographs in the story are less visually striking and less formally elegant. They adhere more closely to the familiar style of photo-essays where no image pretends to stand alone, each one opening on to the next like a cinematic assembly of narrative fragments. (Indeed, they have a feel typical of film stills and photo-novellas of the period.)

More importantly Picture Post portrays the parlourmaid in a much more complex way than the famous single photograph. In the magazine she is shown via the text and the images to have an ambivalent position in the class structure of the pre-war wealthy home. While in the end belonging “downstairs”, the head-parlourmaid had the confidence and trust of the family. At dinner “she hears every word that is spoken, yet she does not hear it” tells one caption. She is depicted as a trustworthy mediator, privy to the concerns of those upstairs and downstairs. Moreover, she is also shown as a representative of a new professional standing for women. Head-parlourmaids were beginning to replace male butlers, a change that probably prompted the piece to be commissioned. The introduction to the photo-story states “1,332,224 persons are employed in domestic service in England and Wales. There are no separate statistics for parlourmaids, but with house-parlourmaids, they are said to number about 20,000.” In this sense the head-parlourmaid is shown as part of an old class structure but a sign of new trends too. Brandt had first photographed her in 1933, six years before her appearance in Picture Post. Her role must have been even more unusual then. It almost goes without saying that little of this is evident in the famous single image alone which, perhaps by default, we assume shows us a situation typical of its time.

Like many of his apparently documentary images, the Picture Post story was a family affair. It is in fact Bill Brandt himself who is served dinner in the final image. The parlourmaid went by the name of Pratt and she was in charge of the two residences owned by Bill’s uncle, the banker Henry Brandt. One was in Mayfair, the other in Redhill, Surrey, where most of the images for the photo-story were shot.

Brandt frequently made use of friends and family in his photographs and it seems he sensed right away that Pratt would make for an interesting subject. He had made a note about his first meeting with her in 1928: “Fortuite ou nécessaire – qui sait – la rencontre avec Pratt m’était en tous ca fatale” (“Fortuitous or determined – who knows – the meeting with Pratt was in any case a fatal/fateful one for me”).[vi]

In the 1930s and early 1940s Brandt produced many photo stories for Weekly Illustrated, Picture Post and its brother publication Lilliput. Yet he seems to have somewhat stumbled into his work as a photojournalist, and had all but given it up by the mid-1940s. In 1948 he wrote:

“Towards the end of the war, my style changed completely. I have often been asked why this happened. I think I gradually lost my enthusiasm for reportage. Documentary photography had become fashionable. Everybody was doing it. Besides, my main theme of the past few years had disappeared; England was no longer a country of marked social contrast.”[vii]

England after the war was still a country steeped in social division, despite the need for co-operation and collective rebuilding. What had gone was the clear visibility of those divisions. As the photographer August Sander had found in Germany after the war, clothing and gesture were no longer so obviously marked by social position or profession. Appearances were leveling out and ‘reading’ people from their surfaces had become much more difficult.

By the 1940s Brandt had done his youthful, energetic work (he was born in 1904). Despite his early “enthusiasm for reportage” he had always struggled with the pictorial form of the photo-essay. His forte was the singular image that worked best alone or in simple juxtaposition. Each of Brandt’s well-known images aims for a tight formal organisation, its content given dramatic charge and dense psychological resonance. As documents they aim unapologetically to exceed visual description. In this sense what served him ill as a photojournalist was just what predisposed his images toward posterity via art. Not surprisingly this preference for the self-contained image is shared by many of the documentarists and photojournalists who pursued their commissioned/paid work as artists.  When we think of Henri Cartier-Bresson, for example, what comes to mind are the great single pictures – his ‘decisive moments’ of pictorial geometry and poetic expression. His photo-essays for magazines are much less celebrated. Similarly the American Walker Evans worked within reportage but with ‘higher’ artistic aims. Picture Post has long since vanished, its undeniably powerful place in British society a dimming memory. An issue of a weekly magazine had a cultural life little longer than its initial seven days. Its impact would be widespread but brief. Brandt’s images have lived on in the more robust histories of photography and art that were taking shape just as he was turning away from photojournalism.

In the 1950s he continued to work professionally but concentrated on the more established genres of portraiture and landscape. In the 1960s there were two major changes in his work and its reception. Both were related to his emerging position in art photography. He began to print his negatives much more harshly, sacrificing the mid-tones for more modish graphic blocks of black and white. The rich descriptive information in his negatives would be subsumed, even obliterated in his new aesthetic. It was a technique that looked backward through German expressionist cinema to art photography’s Pictorialist preference for deep shadows and chiaroscuro, but it also connected with the emerging Pop sensibility.

While his latest photography was pursued more openly as art, notably  his nudes (published as a book in 1960), his expressionism was released anew upon his earlier work. His books from the 1960s are printed with graphic extremes of black and white. The large format anthology Shadow of Light (1966) selected photographs spanning his career with an emphasis on the singular print and Brandt as a single-minded visionary. This was the book that made the case for his position in twentieth century art. The idea of a working photographer is  sidelined in favour of the persona of an intuitive artist, which perhaps he had always wanted to be.

Shadow of Light 1966

Nevertheless artwork and document are never entirely separate. Parlourmaid and under-parlourmaid ready to serve dinner is included in Shadow of Light, this time opposite a photograph titled In a Kensington drawing room after dinner. The spread echoes that first juxtaposition made in The English at Home thirty years before. Another two images of Pratt from the Picture Post story are also included. In one case an image first captioned by Picture Post as “Taking her afternoon off to visit friends in Putney” reappears in Shadow of Light titled ‘Putney Landlady’. Words could make her stern face mean many things in Brandt’s  slippery use of the social document.

The reprinting of Parlourmaid and under-parlourmaid ready to serve dinner was never too harsh. Brandt knew well that the force of this photograph resided in its details as much as its bold graphic organisation. Shadow of Light even improved on its past reproductions allowing new layers of meaning to emerge.  In this book one can see more clearly that in taking this shot Brandt deliberately focused on the shiny glass and silverware of the dining table. The parlourmaids behind are not so crisp. It may have been that the whole scene could not have been rendered in detail for technical reasons (low light and moving subject matter leading to the necessity of a wide aperture offering a shallow depth of field). Brandt chose to let the faces of the women fall out of focus. We can still see that they avoid eye contact with the camera – as if averting their gaze from their master (they “know their place”). The camera clearly ‘sees’ them, offering them a vital place in the composition but it does not to focus on them.  What is the effect of this? It is difficult to say exactly.  Does Brandt put us in the position of the master of the house, keener to scrutinise the dinner table than connect with the lowly maids in the room? Perhaps, but in doing this he opens up a commentary, a critical distance, on the whole scenario. In being given to see the maids out of focus at a technical level we are by extension given to see them out of focus at a social level too. Their being out of focus becomes the focus of the picture, so to speak. Rarely in the history of medium has this optical effect been deployed to open up such complexity (we might think of Robert Frank’s image taken at a Hollywood premiere, in which a blonde starlet occupying most of the frame is out of focus while the faces in the crowd behind her are clear). While some meanings of  Brandt’s photograph have been buried as the image has moved across time and from documentary to art, new meanings have come to the surface, meanings entirely dependent on art’s demand for superior qualities of reproduction.

brandt evans quality

In 1969 the American photographer Walker Evans was invited by Louis Kronenberger to select a handful of photographs for the book Quality. Its Image in the Arts. Evans included Parlourmaid and under-parlourmaid ready to serve dinner. “This picture is Brandt striking home (in all senses of the word)” he wrote, “Instantaneous precision is only the beginning of its quality; it proceeds to a lot more; surgical detachment, wit, theater…”[viii] That year, at the age of 65, Brandt had a major show at New York’s Museum of Modern Art which came to London’s Hayward Gallery in 1970. The catalogue reproduced 13 of the show’s 125 images, including Parlourmaid and under-parlourmaid ready to serve dinner, further establishing Brandt and the status of this image.

brandt hayward catalogue

As with many photographers who were discovered by a wider audience later in life, Brandt found himself regarded as a ‘figure from the past’ and as a contemporary artist at the same time. Layered on top of this was what looked like a shift from documentarist to artist. The reality, as always, was more complicated. At his best Brandt was a ‘documentary artist’ with all the paradoxes and interpretative difficulties that entails. There could never be any simple distinction between his artistry and his documentary description. The two are inextricable and give us no clear answers. And in the end these tensions are at the heart of his work and its success.

by David Campany


[i] Mark Haworth-Booth cites Henderson in his introduction to the second edition of Brandt’s book Shadow of Light, Gordon Fraser, London 1977, p.17.

[ii] John Taylor, ‘Picturing the Past: Documentary Realism in the 30s’ Ten8 no. 11(1982)

[iii] In recent years The English at Home has been included in two surveys of significant photographic books: Andrew Roth’s The Book of 101 Books: Seminal Photographic books of the Twentieth Century (PPP Editions in association with Roth Horowitz LCC, New York 2001) and Martin Parr & Gerry Badger’s The Photobook: a History, Volume One (Phaidon Press, London 2004).

[iv] Poetic realism as a documentary form was to be subject to thoroughgoing critique in later years, notably from Allan Sekula who argued that in such an approach “Pity, mediated by an appreciation of great art, supplants political understanding.” Allan Sekula, ‘Dismantling Modernism – Reinventing Documentary’ in Photography Against the Grain, Nova Scotia College of Art and Design, 1984.

[v] ‘The Perfect Parlourmaid’, Picture Post, vol. 4, no. 4 (July 29,  1939), pp. 43–7. Picture Post ran from 1938 to 1957. At its height it sold 1,350,000 copies per week.  It was owned by Edward G. Hulton and edited for its first year or so by the emigré Stefan Lorant and thereafter by Tom Hopkinson. Hulton was an active member of the Conservative Party while Lorant and Hopkinson had broadly socialist principles. The politics of the magazine were complex. It was staunchly anti-Nazi; domestically it campaigned for full employment, minimum wages, child allowances, educational reform and a national health service. At the same its time portrayal of the British class system was often unwittingly conservative, particularly in its depiction of the industrial North of England. Indeed it contributed in many ways to the entrenched regional stereotypes that are still with us. Stuart Hall discusses this in ‘The Social Eye of Picture Post’, Working Paper in Cultural Studies, no. 2, 1972; John Taylor, ‘Picturing the Past: Documentary Realism in the 30s’ Ten8 no. 11(1982); and Sylvia Harvey, ‘Who wants to know What and Why?’, Ten8, no. 23.

[vi] See Paul Delany Bill Brandt; a life, Jonathan Cape, London 2004, p. 106.

[vii] Bill Brandt, Introduction to his Camera in London, Focal Press, London 1948. This book, with its slightly sentimental edit of his past work is one of the few publications of Brandt work not to contain Parlourmaid and under-parlourmaid ready to serve dinner.

[viii] Walker Evans, ‘Photography’ in Louis Kronenberger (ed) Quality. Its Image in the Arts,  Atheneum, New York 1969.

Making History