Sep 192011

Young Housewife

Bethnal Green, England

This morning, I flipped through my copy

of “The Family of Man”.  It was based on

an exhibition at the Museum of Modern

Art from 1955, mounted by Edward Steichen.

A picture jumped out at me and I wanted

to share it with you.


Young Housewife, Bethnal Green, England. Bill Brandt

Simple Gestures

At the moment, I am writing the next part of the Great Compositions series.  Cartier-Bresson is proving to be a tough article.  There are so many interesting aspects to his work, that narrowing it down to a reasonable entry is a challenge.  But in my search of images for the article, I came across an unlikely image by Bill Brandt titled “Young Housewife.”

The image, as published in “The Family of Man,” is quite a small picture.  If it were any larger I could scan it for the site, but it did not seem to garner much attention from the publisher.  But the picture works incredibly well and handles -with a soft touch – the tender gesture of a housewife as she cleans a doorway.  The subject matter of the picture is not ground breaking.  And pressed to write a thumbnail description for the image it might read “Young woman cleaning a doorway threshold.”

The engaging part about this image, which knocked me back in my seat today was this picture is a masterpiece of good timing and puts into picture form one of the lessons that Leonardo Da Vinci observed in his “Treatise on Painting.”  The woman’s body creates an almost perfect arabesque.  There is an expanding S curve, which starts at the top of her head and finishes at her knees.  Every part of her body either carries the line or echoes its shape.  This brings unity to her posture and strengthens her pose.  When we look at people in photographs, paintings, or sculptures, a good artists works like a magician.  We love the effect, but can’t explain how it happened.

An arabesque sweeps through her entire body. Bill Brandt

When it comes to figurative work, one hint to a great composition lies in the collaboration of the entire body.  If the hands, arms, and tilt of the head reinforce the direction of the body, there is a pretty good chance that the figure will be clear in its expression.  Now this does not mean it will be a good picture, but it does mean the form will express a clear message.  It could be a soldier standing completely erect with arms, legs, and head echo the straight back of the posture.  The picture will be stiff, but it will be unified.  In this case, there is a twist and flow that runs from the top of her head down to her knees.  This brings a maximum amount of movement to a relatively still moment.  Taken a few seconds later should probably would have been hunched over on all fours and the picture would have lost all of its action.


The body can be simplified into a stack of circles and squares. By doing this, the action of the form becomes much easier to see. Bill Brandt

The other, more subtle concept, at play is an observation in anatomy.  Now I doubt that Brandt had this in mind when he took the image, but its possible he had some drawing classes and may have been familiar with the ideas Da Vinci published in his book. Artists generalize human figures when they draw to simplify the forms.  Its makes it easier to see what a body is DOING in space.  The human form can be broken up into a series of circles and squares.  The head (circle), sits on the rib cage (square), which rests on the stomach (circle), which locks into the hips (square).  The alternating rhythm of circles and squares creates a balance issue.  Imagine stacking boxes on bowling balls.  It would be a challenge.

But, this awkward assemble of parts, is balanced by our muscles.  They allow our bodies to shift without falling over.  When we can capture someone expressing their imbalance, it will imbue a real sense of tension and action into a photograph, no matter how simplistic the subject matter.  Here we can see her her head and shoulders tip one direction, with her hips pointing the other and her knees shifting back the other way, all in an effort to keep her upright.  The pictures has a very simple rhythm, but one that is very effective.

The head looks to the right and the body looks to the left, just like Da Vinci suggested. Bill Brandt

Da Vinci told us in his treatise that you never want to paint a picture where the head and body are looking the same direction. It will make for a lifeless image.  Is this true?  Could it be a good rule to follow?  Try it out.  See if you have taken pictures where the head and body face the same direction.  Is it a flat picture, void of any movement?  Here her head looks to the right and her body looks to the left.  Pretty simple huh?  But it works.  Give it a try the next time you are taking a picture of someone.  Whether its candid or posed, wait for the moment when they turn their head and body in opposing directions.  What happens to the picture?  Brandt shows us a great example of a picture that has the basic ideas of a strong composition in place.

Notice how she looks to our right and her body looks to our left. Its a subtle, but effective gesture. Leonardo Da Vinci

  • Figure To Ground Relationship:  We have a light figure on a dark ground, so there is no confusion about the subject.
  • Arabesque:  The S-curve running the length of her body is the strongest shape in the entire piece, this making it the dominant feature.
  • Diagonals:  The direction of her body follows the major diagonals, in both directions of the piece, with the baroque diagonal (moving from bottom left to top right) being the strongest.
  • Alternating Rhythm:  Head and shoulders tip one way, the stomach and hips tip the other way.  This adds excellent movement.
  • Head and Shoulders:  There is a twist introduced which shows why Da Vinci encouraged us to point the head one direction and the body another direction.

Next time you are out taking pictures, experiment with these ideas.  See if they work for you.  Watch how the head teeters on the shoulders and wait for the moments where the head and body are pointing different directions.  See if the pictures appear less stiff and filled with a greater sense of action.

Cartier-Bresson took a serious interest in Buddhism later in his life.  Quotes like this one from the Buddha may explain why:

“Do not believe in anything simply because you have heard it. Do not believe in anything simply because it is spoken and rumored by many. Do not believe in anything simply because it is found written in your religious books. Do not believe in anything merely on the authority of your teachers and elders. Do not believe in traditions because they have been handed down for many generations. But after observation and analysis, when you find that anything agrees with reason and is conducive to the good and benefit of one and all, then accept it and live up to it.”


Young Housewife, Bethnal Green, England. Bill Brandt

Ok, thats all for this morning.  Just wanted to share a brief moment with you all before I head to the studio.  Tomorrow I will publish the article on my trip to visit with Leicatime maestro Luigi Crescenzi.



  12 Responses to “Bill Brandt”

  1. Adam

    Just continue this great series. I am right behind you – leaning :-) .

    I look at A LOT OF photographs and paintings too. Some are initially just pleasing like this one. I call them “resting images”: They need no more, and could do with nothing less :-) .

    Is this a picture of a photograph or the real thing? A reflection maybe? Hard to see.


  2. Hey Knut,

    Yes, nothing more, nothing less. This one has just the right balance.

    What do you mean, is this a picture of a photograph? I pulled the image from a google images. So its a scan of a photograph, not a reflection.


  3. Adam,

    Just wanted to say how much I also appreciate you writing and posting these articles. There’s so little serious discussion on composition out there (that I’ve found anyway), and though it’s a pretty daunting (not to mention humiliating / depressing WRT one’s own work!) topic at first I find it fascinating to be taken through things with bite-size nuggets like this one.

    Thank you!


    • Hey Andrew,

      Thanks so much for the feedback. Its great to hear the articles are of some use to you. I agree, there is very little information on composition written for photographers. There is plenty of material for painters, but its written for a totally different audience. As a subject, its not nearly as glamourous as the next lens release or new gadget, but whenever I find myself caught up with gear, I look at my book shelf. None of the great photographers of the 20th century needed digital cameras or F 1.4 lenses. Their genius was the design of the photograph. So I continue practicing…

      And if you have any questions or there are confusing points feel free to ask. Its better than scratching your head for months on end. If I cant explain it, I will find someone who can.


  4. Adam, I am a bit puzzled about the original shot (not your scan). Is this a real doorway or something more complicated than that. I cannot explain the small furniture legs that I see in the foreground low, nor can I explain the strange uniformity of the girls background.


  5. Hey Knut,

    I believe she is sitting inside of an open doorway. It looks as though the door might be a “half door” and the entry has a strange wall paper or mangled plaster job. The thing that looks like a furniture leg is the jamb of the door and the sweep at the bottom of the door. That is what I have understood it to be. Anyone out there friends with Bill Brandt? We could ask them to be sure. : )


  6. Well, maybe it is just a strange animal passing :-) . Thanks.


  7. Hey Adam,

    Good stuff man, as always. The image has movement but is calm, she’s vertical and as you illustrate forms a beautiful arabesque yet the emotion I get from it is that of a horizontal image (a seascape etc) – if I’m making sense?

    Do you think the “calm” I’m seeing comes from her expression of the composition? In real life is she energetically rubbing the cloth together in the bucket, ready to vigorously scrub the floor again? What makes it calm and do you think that was the intent of the photographer?

    Looking forward to your Luigi post!

    • Hey Duncan,

      I am just getting over this head cold, which is why there was a delay in my response.

      Let me give some thought to your seascape idea, once my brain is clear and get back to you.

      Did you enjoy the Luigi post?


  8. Thanks so much for this, a true masterpiece

  9. Hi Adam,

    First of all, thank you very much for sharing the information, I really appreciate your teaching about composition and really taking photos. I was once one of the Leica fans who chases after high speed lens for creating a magical look easily. But now I find it stupid. After reading your articles, I’ve abandoned my noctilux and summilux and just focus on using one lens now– the summicron 28mm. There’s a long way to go to become masters like HCB and you, but I have a life time to do it. Thank you once again Adam! Please keep the good articles up!

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