Recently I completed assignment 4 (Context & Narrative, Photography) which took me on the most exciting road of discovery. The photo I chose was Bill Brandt with his Kodak Wideangle Camera‘, a portrait taken by my grandmother, Laelia Goehr (1908-2002), in London in 1944. She had been a pupil of Bill Brandt and was greatly influenced by his work and through him, photographed for both Picture Post and Lilliput in the 1940s.
In November 2018 I participated in an OCA virtual study day looking at the exhibition, Lee Miller and Surrealism in Britain shown at The Hepworth, Wakefield. I had known little about Miller or the Surrealism movement and the workshop was most fascinating. Little did I know at the time what great preparation it would be for my upcoming assignment.
From studying the photo, I was intrigued by who set it up, Brandt or my grandmother and what was the influence of Surrealism? Other portraits by my grandmother were very different in style and it was his direct gaze that seemed to indicate that he was overseeing the taking of this portrait. This was confirmed to me by Mark Haworth Booth, a former senior curator at the Victoria and Albert Museum, London who knew Brandt very well. He said in an email ‘it is only a self-portrait by BB (Brandt) in that he showed your grandmother how to set up the camera and positioned himself to be photographed’. This photograph was taken a couple years after Lee Miller’s famous photograph of David E. Scherman, dressed for war. In both photos the ‘eye’ motif is a dominating feature. In his essay ‘Bill Brandt’s Pictorialism’, Nigel Warburton says ‘ the eye, too, is a recurrent motif in Surrealist visual art’. The influence of Surrealism can be seen in both photos as well as in the series Perspectives on Nudes which Brandt took with this camera. It is documented that he was very influenced by Man Ray and Surrealism and knew Lee Miller in Paris when helping in Man Ray’s studio in 1930. It is possible that Miller may have even been the model for Brandt’s photo Semi-nude with Kimono (1930s) according to Paul Delany in biography, Bill Brandt, A Life.
There is very little written about my grandmother so I was dependent on family memories and it transpired that she also had been a good friend of Millers’ after Miller had moved back to London to live with Roland Penrose.
A visit to the Victoria and Albert, to look at an original print of the photo led me to an exciting discovery of a further six negatives of Bill Brandt taken by grandmother which she gave to the V&A in 1987.
Research for this assignment has led me to a personal discovery about my family. Little did I know that my first essay for my degree would be so exciting and revealing. Further details can be seen in the full essay on https://juliacrockattphoto.wordpress.com/assignment-4-a-picture-is-worth-a-thousand-words/
Listen to this Article