English photographer Bill Brandt, now 78, may be one of the least known great photographers of our time. Not that his images aren't etched in the public memory: His starched London parlormaids and coal-blackened miners defined the extremes of British society in the 1930s, and remain unforgettable. So do his images of blacked-out London during the Blitz.
It is the sweep of Brandt's work that is not sufficiently appreciated here: his haunting landscapes, the often spooky portraits of writers and artists like the Sitwells and Magritte, the shadowy surrealistic nudes that occupy him to this day. There was a Brandt retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art in 1969, but his current show at the Lunn Gallery, 406 Seventh St. NW, is a long-overdue first for Washington.It should not be missed by anyone who loves photography.
Early on, Brandt developed a highly contrasty style that has given all his work a distinctively continental -- and specifically German -- look. London-born, he spent a good part of his youth on the Continent, and after giving up his dream of being an architect, went to Paris in 1929 to study photography with surrealist Man Ray. There he saw the films of Luis Bunuel and Salvador Dali, and the photographs of Atget and Brassai, the great chroniclers of Paris life who combined social observation with visual poetry. Their work, along with faster lenses and the dramatic chiaroscuro effects made possible by the invention of the flashbulb in 1930, helped shape Brandt's future style.
Returning to London in 1930, he worked as a photojournalist for the burgeoning new illustrated magazines. His first assignment: a series recording "The English at Home," which was ultimately published as Brandt's first book. It was a time of extreme social contrasts, and they are all here in what must have been a visual prototype for "Upstairs, Downstairs": black-tied aristocrats playing backgammon in their drawing rooms alongside more formidable, imperious maids drawing before-dinner baths, and throwing open the windows of their Mayfair houses, leaving no doubt as to who rules the roost.
As counterpoints, Brandt traveled to the industrial towns of the north during the depression of 1937, where he recorded coal-pickers among the slag heaps, windowless houses and the blackened, tired faces of miners at the evening meal. In his even-handed way, he found pleasures in their lives as well: The young miner's wife actually seems to be enjoying the evening's occupation -- scrubbing coal from her husband's back.
In the 1940s, Brandt did a series of photographs for the Home Office recording London during the Blitz, possibly his best-known work. In his pictures of people sleeping in the subways, the crowding is palpable. Despite the sense of ominous forboding, the images of blacked-out London bathed in moonlight are poignantly beautiful, particularly the profile of St. Paul's Cathedral, triumphant over the surrounding rubble. Here, as throughout his work, Brandt has shown himself to be a maker of timeless historical documents in which poetry prevails. The show continues until August, when it will be open by appointment only. Prize Prints
Glittering prizes! How important they seem to artists just before and after they've been won. But how about a half-century later? Do prizes really advance careers? Do winners fulfil their promise?
Betty Duffy, proprietor of the Bethesda Art Gallery, who concentrates on early 20th-century American prints, decided to do some research on the subject, and, with the help of Washington printmaker Prentiss Taylor -- a frequent prize-winner himself -- has come up with an intriguing little show called "American Prize Prints: 1920-50." It examines the prize phenomenon during a time of bursting enthusiasm for printmaking in America, a time when new print clubs, artists' societies, museums like the Whitney in New York and even the Library of Congress in Washington were handing out a flurry of annual prizes, sometimes cash, sometimes the honor of being purchased for the permanent collection.
As it turns out, many of those prize-winners did become well-known: Rockwell Kent, Grant Wood, George Bellows, Peggy Bacon, Martin Lewis and Thomas Hart Benton are all represented here, suggesting that judges have been known to spot talent early on. There are, however, too many unknown names like Polly Knipp Hill, John De Martelly and Jackson Lee Nesbitt whose recognition, prizes -- and clearly ample talents -- did them no good at all.
Nesbitt's seems the most appalling case of talent wasted. Represented here by a superb little Benton-like etching titled "November Eve," depicting a farmer and his dog at the end of day, this artist consistently won prizes, but ended up as a sign painter. Now 71 and living in Dallas, he told Duffy that he'd never sold a single work of art, and gave it up after literally coming close to starving to death. Today he owns none of his art, having long since given it away. There is the seed of a larger and potentially fascinating museum show here, and it continues at 7950 Norfolk Ave. in Bethesda through the month, after which the gallery will close for the summer. "Cheap Thrills"!
Foundry Gallery, formerly located on the P Street Strip, has opened new quarters upstairs at 641 Indiana Ave. NW, formerly occupied by Intuitiveye Gallery. With the hope that people will buy if given a broad range of good, affordable art, the gallery invited several local artists to submit works to sell for under $125. The result: "Cheap Thrills: Off the Wall Art," a few dozen works in various media and of varying interest, several of which deserve a home. Among the highlights: "Pink and Blue Windows" by Marie Ringwald, who seems to make art of everything she touches; a tiny painting of a schoolroom by David Rogers, and collages and mixed-media work by Lou Jones and V. Nolan Jannotta. There are other new names worth checking out before Aug. 21, when the gallery closes for the summer.