Friday, November 10, 2006

Bill Brandt

Many night photographers like to work in dark locations, far away from city street lights. Someday I hope to be so famous that I'll be able to call up the mayor of any city in the United States and request that they shut off the power to the entire city for a hours so that I can get that once-in-a-lifetime full moon illumination of downtown sites.

But until that happens, I'll have to be satisfied with the occasional city-wide power outage (which only seem to happen under stormy skies).

But, what if you had the opportunity to shoot downtown night after night with not artificial light?

(St Paul's Cathedral in the Moonlight. photo: Bill Brandt)

Bill Brandt had that opportunity in London during WWII. Brandt was German photographer who lived most of his life in Britain. He worked from the 1930's through the 1960's, producing some landmark work of British society and distored, black-and-white nudes. But his most interesting work was done at night under cover of the mandatory black-outs.

During WWII, radar was in its infancy, and satellite tracking systems such as GPS did not exist. Bombing pilots had to be able to see their targets, so the British government required all lights to be turned off at night. That included building lights, street lights, headlights and house lights. My grandmother remembered how the goverment even delivered thick, black curtains to everyone in London in order block the glow of gas lanterns inside the house. Imagine that: the entire city of London in total darkness... night after night.

Possibly inspired by Brassai's night photographs of Paris, Bill Brandt produced a series of seedy night photographs in A Night in London (1938), which can be had for little more than the price of a full-frame DSLR. A few years later, during WWII, Brandt seized the opportunity and produced some amazing photographs of bombed out London at night, such as St Paul's Cathedral in the Moonlight (above).

I've never seen a real copy of A Night in London. And the photo above is the only shot from the book that I've ever seen in reprint. If anyone has any links to more photos from this book (or, if anyone actually has this book), please let me know.


Blogger Ivan Ž. said...

Hm, are you sure about the publication date for A night in London. In 1938 WWII haven't even started yet and Battle for Britain took place mid-40 to mid-41.

Also, the link doesn't work.

1:01 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hay Andy my name is Mark Brown and I am curently trying to write my disseration which will look at Brassai's "Paris By Night" and how it influenced Brandt's "A Night in London". I was wondering if you have had any more luck finding websites or books that contain images from A Night in London.

11:54 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

i'm sorry to tell you that your information on the blackout is wrong.
the blackout was not to help our pilots to see but to stop the oppositions pilots from seeing big cities.
also the second world war was in the 40's

7:52 AM  
Blogger Andy Frazer said...


Please re-read my post. It does not say that the blackout was to help out pilots see, nor does it say that WWII was anytime other then the 40's.

Where are you reading this???


9:19 AM  
Blogger Unknown said...

I have no idea what 'Anonymous' is picking up on; the article seemed clear and well written to me.

Thanks for this post, it helped me in writing an essay on the history of night photography.

12:29 PM  
Blogger James Godfrey said...

I was just wondering if any links were found on the night in London series.


2:15 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I have a copy of this book, it tells at the beginning about how it was written and about black outs.

9:31 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

The national Art Library in London has a copy, at the V&A. you have to become a member, but its well worth a look.
i have a digital copy of the book, if you would like me to send you this..?
email me at

3:31 AM  

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