A second look at Bill Brandt and Henry Moore
Photographer Bill Brandt (1904–1983) and sculptor Henry Moore (1898–1986) first crossed paths during the Second World War, when each produced images of civilians sheltering in the London Underground during the Blitz.
Their war-time pictures today rank among their most iconic works, appearing in countless books and scholarly texts, but often as highly mediated, monotone, or tightly cropped illustrations that do not capture the texture and complexity of the original prints.
A new collaboration bridging the science of photography and an upcoming museum exhibition for the first time conveys the experience of looking at these artists’ photographs as three-dimensional objects.
Published by the Yale Center for British Art (YCBA) in association with Yale University Press, “Bill Brandt | Henry Moore” is the first fully illustrated catalog to render the artists’ photography in a different way. The book, which complements a major exhibition opening at the YCBA in June, is a collaboration between the YCBA’s Martina Droth and Paul Messier of Yale’s Institute for the Preservation of Cultural Heritage (IPCH).
“Art historians and museum curators produce books all the time,” explained Droth, the YCBA’s deputy director of research, exhibitions and publications, and curator of sculpture. “But we often become removed from the original object and the material when looking at the images.”
Droth and Messier, the Pritzker Director of Lens Media at the IPCH, set out to overcome the challenge of presenting the famous photographs as more than two-dimensional illustrations that “stand in” for the experience of the objects.
This book features photographs, drawings, and sculptures that responded in real time to the terror and destruction of the Second World War: exploring the tomb-like conditions of London Underground tunnels and crypts that doubled as makeshift air raid shelters during the Blitz, a German bombing campaign in 1940 and 1941.
Brandt’s images of unemployed families, coal miners, and housing estates from 1930s Depression-era Britain obliquely reflect Moore’s personal history as one of eight miner’s children in a Yorkshire colliery town. Moore’s own coal mining drawings capture an era where coal was understood as vital to Britain’s survival.
Newsprint, magazines, negatives, contact sheets, cut-outs, and unfinished experiments in collage are featured in the book alongside sculptures, drawings, and photographic prints.
“We wanted to invite a different conversation about these famous artists by engineering the intended context and dimension back into the prints by showing them as physical objects,” said Messier, whose lab at Yale’s West Campus houses the world’s largest collection of historic photographic papers. “We want people to experience the immediacy and three-dimensional meaning in this work — to take a second, harder look.”
Capturing the prints as three-dimensional objects rather than flattened images on the page presented unique technical challenges and required some heavy-duty photographic editing. It also provided opportunities to invent new techniques.
Working with YCBA photographers Richard Caspole and Robert Hixon, Messier and Droth first captured each print in the traditional manner using 45-degree lighting. The prints were then shot with specular lighting, which simulates the bright spots of light that appear on shiny objects, to capture gloss and reflectivity, and finally from a third position using raking light (at an angle nearly parallel to the surface) to impart texture.
Relying on their experience of the original prints, the pair stacked each edited layer, changing opacity to highlight subtle cues in each image, always sensitive not to interfere with the originals.
Neutral gray card, a common tool in any photography studio, was selected for the background to each image. Shadows from a direct lighting source were captured and combined with a nearly imperceptible light fall-off to create depth and dimension, effects that would intensify with the application of varnishes in the final, printed book.
Each image in the book was carefully prepared for printing by master printer Thomas Palmer, former collaborator of the late Richard Benson. Considered one of the finest printers of photographic books, Benson was dean of the Yale School of Art (1996 to 2006), where he also taught the book’s designer, Miko McGinty ’93 B.A., ’98 M.F.A.
The result of this Yale collaboration is a book in which the prints appear authentic, concealing none of the originals’ blemishes or the artists’ process marks and cross-outs.
By combining this unique presentation of the prints’ materiality with extensive illustrations and essays by leading scholars — including Carol Armstrong, Sebastiano Barassi, Lynda Nead, and John Tagg — the editors hope to convey to readers the objective story: the truth of the images.
“We often look through photographs where the subject is no longer the principal reference,” Droth said. “Unusually for an exhibition book, this one pulls us back in, bringing us closer to the curator looking directly at the work.”
Counter to the complexity of producing the book, Messier’s aim is simple: to get out of the way of the reader’s experience, “to make the objects real for people.”
“Bill Brandt | Henry Moore” will be published Feb. 7 by Yale Center of British Art in association with Yale University Press.
The exhibition takes place at The Hepworth Wakefield: Feb. 7–May 31; Yale Center for British Art, New Haven: June 25–Sept. 13; and The Sainsbury Centre for Visual Art, Norwich: Nov. 22, 2020–Feb. 28, 2021.