In this book, photography and its role as a reproducible medium is shown as the thread that unites the visual worlds of the artists Bill Brandt and Henry Moore. The American film director Orson Welles famously described the camera as “much more than a recording apparatus, it is a medium via which messages reach us from another world”. It was the camera, and the exponential demand for pictures during the second world war, that first brought Brandt and Moore together.
At a time when the communicative power of images was seized upon and controlled by government, both artists made works that responded in real time to the unfolding calamities of their times. Moore’s air-raid shelter drawings and Brandt’s shelter photographs provided a potent visual narrative through which to mediate civilians’ experiences. While working independently and in different media, their pictures were seen side by side in newsprint. Picture Post and its contemporary rivals – Life, Harpers, Lilliput – featured Brandt and Moore on their pages, each in their own way providing newsworthy pictures and stories.
Although art and photography were seen as distinct from one another – even antithetical – they shared the same platforms and circulated in the same visual universe. Ultimately, it was the reproducibility of photographs that provided the primary means by which any work of art was encountered. Moore, as much Brandt, recognised photography as a fundamental channel of communication.
As well as contributing to news media, both artists were deeply invested in publishing books of their work. Brandt published collections of his photographs in which he reinvented earlier works and set new versions of his pictures into fresh contexts and juxtapositions, often radically altering the way they appeared.
Moore, meanwhile, was controlling of how his works were captured by the camera. In early exhibition catalogues, it was Moore who supplied and oversaw the photography. His photographic archive, preserved at the Henry Moore Foundation in Hertfordshire, contains more than 200,000 prints, contact sheets, slides and negatives, a clear signal of his commitment to the medium. Later, he collaborated with photographers to produce narratives of his works. Photography, in short, was a medium of equal significance to Brandt and Moore.
Printed images in a book or magazine are often assumed to be secondary to the thing they depict, mere surrogates of original works of art. This implicit hierarchy means we often give these visual media short shrift – they appear not to warrant the same degree of contemplation we might afford a drawing or vintage print. This book seeks to interrupt that mode of looking. It places sculptures, drawings and photographic prints on the same footing as newsprint, books, negatives, contact sheets and other unfinished and experimental forms.
The cover design and format of the book is drawn from Picture Post, the illustrated weekly that was read by millions during the war and postwar years. It also evokes the broader sphere of news media and its persistence – the brash white-on-red masthead remains a familiar signature of magazines, tabloids and televisions news ribbons to this day, almost a hundred years on.
Martina Droth is the deputy director of research and curator of sculpture at the Yale Center for British Art in New Haven, Connecticut.
Bill Brandt / Henry Moore is at the Hepworth Wakefield, Yorkshire, 7 February–31 May, then at the Yale Center for British Art 25 June–13 September, and the Sainsbury Centre for Visual Art, Norwich, 22 November–28 February 2021