Thursday, 21 August 2014

Three versions of a Bill Brandt photograph

The other day I was searching around for some information about a particular Bill Brandt image and stumbled upon a different one that certainly grabbed my attention. The photograph, entitled Crystal Palace, 1938 is reproduced in a New York Review blog post by Eve Bowen, and this is it:

Here is what Eve says about the image:
Among the most exquisite photographs from the exhibition was Crystal Palace (1938)—an early nude, but not one of flesh and blood. In this image, Brandt’s subject is a naked statue in a London park. Her curvaceous stone body is coated with white frost and resembles voluptuous flesh. The frost accentuates the folds of the fabric that she holds at her groin, and also highlights the ringlets of her hair, her nose, lips, nipples, fingers, and toes. The pedestal she stands on isn’t visible in the frame, and so her feet appear almost to be resting on the ground as the wind blows through the branches of the trees behind her. The magic of Brandt’s photograph is to make this inanimate sculpture look startlingly lifelike and vulnerable, and it gave this viewer goosebumps.
While I share the sense that this is a very striking and appealing image, I disagree that the effect of the composition and the frost combine to make the statue look 'startlingly lifelike and vulnerable'. I don't get goosebumps looking the image, though I do find it engrossing and very pleasing. But putting my finger on why it is so appealing was not quite so straightforward, and in the course of thinking about it I discovered there are multiple versions of this image, and they don't all have the same effect.

Lets start with the subject matter of the photograph. Its one of the victorian statues that probably adorned the Italian Terrace in the Crystal Palace park in south London. I don't know who the sculptor was or indeed which classical figure is represented. Finding out would require a bit more research than I am willing to do at the moment, and since my interest is primarily in what the photograph achieves, it isn't the most pressing matter.

But while on the subject of the statue, it is worth trying to look at it independently of the photograph (so to speak). Here are a few observations. While all of its features are in a recognisable style, it is an odd representation of a women. Those bizarre gravity defying breasts that look like hemispheres that have  glued onto the chest. Their appearance conflicts with the more naturalistic rendering of the rest of the body. One might also ask why this women is wearing a hat made of a large, hollowed out raspberry. More importantly, look at the very well-crafted but distinctly masculine arms. Then look again at the torso through the lens of masculinity. There really is something of the poorly disguised man about this women.

This masculine rendering, it seems to me, is very important. For the frost softens and feminises the appearance of the skin, creating such a striking contrast with the masculine form. But there is something else as well. Because the frost is particularly prevalent in the drapery, it has the effect of making this seems a distinct material from the rest of the sculpture.

But there are other versions of this photograph available through the Bill Brandt archive, and it is worth comparing them. (The version above is credited by the NYR to the Edwynn Houk Gallery.) Here is one of the other two versions:

The differences are quite striking. First, this version crops material from both sides and the bottom that is visible in the version I began with. Next, the contrast between light and dark in this latter version is far more pronounced. The symphony of greys in the former version is replaced by a more reduced array of black and white.  The light is harder in this latter version, and together with the enlargement of the statue (relative to the whole) resulting from the cropping, the  frost on the body looks more a disease-like fault than an animating quality. The extraordinary appearance of the drapery in the former is replaced by an appearance nowhere near as striking and otherworldly. I have no doubt which of these is the better of the two.

But there is a third version:

The square frame suggests this is an un-cropped printing of the negative, and thus that the first of the versions above is also a cropped portion of this image. (I suppose its possible that there is more than one negative, but if so that fact bears little upon the comparison I am undertaking. For then we would be comparing distinct photographs rather than versions of a particular photograph.)

This last version, it seems to me, is the weakest of the lot. It shares with version two the less impressive tonal quality found in version one, and the visual effect of the frost is diminished. Despite its strangeness the sculpture has a quite majestic presence in version one, but in this last version the reduction in scale is also a reduction in effect. The flora backdrop has too large a part to play in this version, a part well beyond its significance. Look how, in the first version, the scale of the stature relative to the trees makes it appear a goddess-like giantess is looming over us, something that significantly contributes to the powerful effect. In this version, the goddess is reduced to a mere statuette.

So I think it self-evident that the first version is the best. The one that demonstrates Brandt's genius. This looming and strange figure, apparently possessing a mysterious patina we know to be frost but cannot help imagine being something else, with its masculine and feminine features, is looking us in the eye and appears to be gesturing to us with one hand. Its an intimate and slightly intimidating encounter we have, but the soft greys draw us to this curious goddess.

It is so often the case that a great photograph is the result of a photographers ability to maximise the effect of their image through cropping and mastery of contrast and the greyscale palate. Nobody has been better than Bill Brandt at composition and the power of contrast. These three versions of photograph are a good a place to start in making the case for Brandt's genius through mastery of his medium.

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