Friday, November 30, 2007

Bill Brandt and Cecil Beaton

Two photographers who, it is said, were forever altered by the experience of photographing the Second World War, Cecil Beaton and Bill Brandt are also interesting for how compelling and creative their non-war related work is. They could clearly shoot artifice as well as reality and there are some interesting echoes across the genres for both photographers.

Bill Brandt is perhaps best known for his war photography. Stephen Brooke calls Brandt ''perhaps the most important British photographer of the twentieth century.'' His wartime images of Londoners camping out in the Underground or sleeping in church crypts during the Blitz have become iconic.

It's worth noting that, as a young photographer, Brandt studied briefly under Man Ray. There is a surprising amount of surrealism to his war photography, which is especially striking given its documentary nature. His photographs of an abandoned and darkened London seem like something out of the dream world. In fact, Brandt was best at recognizing that there's something surreal and disorienting about a world at war and capturing that strangeness in his wartime photographs. They're most striking as postings from a world turned upside down- like a brief glimpse into the subconscious.

After the war, Brandt shot a series of nudes that are also iconic, as well as similarly surreal. In contrast to the London war photos, which highlighted the dearth of private space, the nudes are often posed in private spaces, the interiors of darkened rooms and homes. The women are somber and sullen, and tend to be very brightly lit, in contrast with the rooms, which are often quite dark. The women stand out like a beacon in this shadowy private world.

In many cases, they actually stare out at or reach towards the viewer, breaking the third wall. Brooke says that they challenge the ''male gaze'', but I'm a bit uncomfortable with that. The idea of the male gaze, which comes from writings by John Berger, and particularly Laura Mulvey seems a bit overstated to me. Clearly, Brooke was a male who was gazing at nude females, but theories of the male gaze also tend to assume that the audience for these works of art is also male, which seems more than a bit presumptuous. Scopophilia is a human pleasure after all.

But Brooke is right in arguing that there are continuities throughout Brandt's work. Not only do we see a surrealism running through the war documentary photographs and into the strange nudes, but there is also a connection between flesh and death in these later nudes that comes from both the war and the surrealists. As Brandt's war photographs highlight in an extreme way how all of us live with death, the nudes often seem like erotic memento morii, highlighting the connections between Eros and Thanatos that are central to surrealism.

Cecil Beaton always claimed to have been changed by the war, and this narrative has been commonly accepted. He was one of the ''bright young things'' of the 1930s, making up for his modest background by working for Vogue, photographing high fashion and the demi monde. He became a leading photographer of what he called the ''pleasure class'' and would, during the war, consider this subject matter to have been trivial. However, for those of us who are aficionados of this sort of glamour photography, it is among the greatest art of the century.

In 1943, the reviewer Henry Saville argued that,''Cecil Beaton can be considered today to symbolize the revolution the war has brought to Britain.'' Where Beaton's subject matter had previously been shimmeringly superficial, he now focused on the blood and iron of the working class military and civilians. His image of wounded Blitz victim Eileen Dunne clutching her teddy bear is one of the most famous British images from the War. Martin Francis detects what he calls a ''romantic Toryism'' to Beaton's wartime photography, and others have identified a newfound seriousness and egalitarianism in the work.

Of course, romantic Toryism relies more on hierarchy than egalitarianism, and one could argue that the same applies to aestheticism and celebrity as well. Francis sees a hierarchizing tendency in Beaton's war photography as well- a tendency to valorize soldiers while remaining aware of their place. Many of the photographs are also framed in a theatrical sort of way- his image of tank remains at Halfaya Pass reminds one of an abstract work of art or looking through a broken telescope. Francis also sees a ''queer eye'' in the photography that troubles the romantic Toryism, although one should note that many conservative snobs have been gay. Also, it is difficult for me to imagine how Beaton, a bisexual male, could have photographed male soldiers without his photographs being read as ''queer''- Francis notes how tender and feminizing the images are, but surely strongly masculine images would also seem homoerotic.

It's important to note that Beaton, by all accounts, survived the war with his snobbery intact. He also turned from the stark realism of the war imagery back to creating artifice. His post-war celebrity photography is as brilliant as his early Vogue work and his shots of Marilyn Monroe are deservedly famous. Beaton also worked on Broadway, designing costumes and sets for plays such as My Fair Lady. His costume design for the film versions of Gigi and My Fair Lady won Beaton two Academy Awards for costume design.

It's interesting to consider the theatrical aspect of war photography and we might consider whether the dramatic aspects of war influenced Beaton's theatrical work. In his war photographs, we can see the aesthetic and theatrical aspects of patriotic imagery. In both Beaton and Brandt's war photos, I think we see the imaginative and creatively fertile aspects of war, patriotism, and national narrative.

Another Sky.

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