Bill Brandt and Walker Evans were both early 20th century photographers and were contemporaries active in the 1930s. Though they worked on different continents, they often took on similar subject matter, with Walker Evans capturing pictures of Americana and the South while Bill Brandt photographed London and industrial towns in England during the 30s. Two current photography exhibits featuring their work at the Museum of Modern Art complement each other well.
The just-opened Walker Evans show, Walker Evans American Photographs, is so humble I nearly missed it the first time I walked through. Perhaps it is so understated because it is the restaging of the original show from 1938 on the occasion of the 75th anniversary of the first one-person photography exhibition at the MoMA.
The show might be described as minimalist, with few images exceeding a three-by-five inch size, a sharp contrast with the large-scale prints of contemporary photography. The installation maintains Evans’ lack of cohesive narrative and instead focuses on grouping and sequences of images to create connections through repetition of shapes and interplay of structures and subject matter.
Through his lens, Evans captured slices of American life, parts of building facades, highway streetscapes, and suburban sprawling landscapes. There is a very beautiful abstract “Tin Relic” from 1930, a close-up of a mechanical object, contrasting with the grand colonnaded Neoclassical interior of “Breakfast Room at Belle Grove Plantation, White Chapel, Louisiana, 1935.” Evans’ first show at the MoMA was of “Photographs of 19th century Houses” in 1933, featuring 39 images of Victorian domestic architecture shot in 1931, some of which are included in the show as well.
Evans documented buildings across the South. There is “Post Office, Sprott, Alabama” a lonely wooden building with a “Drink Coca-Cola” logo on the sign and a desolate street stretching back into nothingness depicting the isolation and underdevelopment of the southern landscape. This contrasts with the urban housing stock of the North in “View of Ossining, New York, 1930,” a work acquired by the Museum from Evans in 1938. “View of Easton, Pennsylvania, 1936” depicts a dense next of houses along a river bank.
Evans captured the differing housing stock, building types and streetscapes across the American landscape. “Factory Street in Amsterdam, New York, 1930” looks like a back alley in medieval Europe while “Roadside View, Alabama Coal Area Company Town 1936” is a repeating pattern of diagonal power lines and sloped barn roofs receding into the distance.
“Main Street, Saratoga Springs, New York, 1931” is a beautiful repetition of parked cars on a slick rainy day, compared with “Joe’s Auto Graveyard, Pennsylvania, 1936” showing dilapidated automobiles in a dry empty field scattered in all different directions. This contrasts with the neat and orderly rhythm of the parked vehicles along the main street in Saratoga.
Bill Brandt: Shadow and Light showcases the work of the British photographer of German origin, who captured beautiful nudes, landscapes, and closely cropped pictures of artists’ eyes as well as powerful portraits of famous individuals and wartime documents of bombed-out London during the Blackout and the Blitz.
In the 1930s, aside from photographing life in London, Brandt went north to the coal mining regions of England and captured industrial architecture in its dark shadowed chiaroscuro, which he included in his retrospectives called Shadows of Light in 1966 and 1977. There is a steeply sloped cobblestone street called “A Snicket in Halifax 1937” that shows beautiful geometric form. Meanwhile the train tracks and smoke stacks in “Halifax 1937” present a sharp contrast of the darkness of sooty buildings with the overcast sky.
In London during the wartime Blackout, Brandt took haunting images by moonlight of St. Paul’s Cathedral with piled high rubble in front, and “The Moon on Park Crescent”. He also captured “Bath-The Circus 1942” with a huge crater filled with water and dirt in front of the bombed out building. He took many pictures of families in bomb shelters as well. There is a striking image of “Packaging Post for the War 1942” with neatly stacked brown paper packages piled as high as a wall ready to be shipped out.
Later in his career Brandt’s photographs were more star-studded. “Vanessa Redgrave, London, 1976” and “Tom Stoppard 1978” are powerful portraits as is “Franco Zefffirelli, Ennismore Gardens, London 1962.” Some of his most interesting work is the series of close up pictures of the eyes of famous artists, including Jean Arp, Jean Dubuffet, Henry Mooore and Georges Braque from 1960, Max Ernst, Alberto Giacometti and Louise Nevelson from 1963.
Brandt thought that it was the photographer’s job to give the viewer a sense of wonder and see the world anew. This exhibit is worth seeing before it closes on August 12th.
Walker Evans American Photographs, on view through January 26, 2014, and Bill Brandt: Shadow and Light, on view through August 12, 2013, Museum of Modern Art, 11 West 53rd Street, 212-708-9400,moma.org
Lisa Tannenbaum is an art historian and photographer. Her images can be viewed at lisatannenbaumphotography.com.