Iconic photographer Bill Brandt has a new exhibition by curator Sarah Hermanson Meister at the New York Museum of Modern Art called “Bill Brandt: Shadow and Light.” While I could wax poetic about Mr. Brandt’s use of composition and light for most of the 1900s, I’m actually more excited to showcase one of his images specifically, as I have a personal connection to it (#9 in the slideshow).
Ernie Delmonte is a (distant) cousin of mine, and the feature in Brandt’s Billingsgate Porter, 1934. Since it’s not everyday to find someone in your family tree as a focal point at the world famous MoMA, I reached out to Ernie’s son, my cousin Jack, for a backstory scoop.
In 1931 my father, aged 20, had been a Billingsgate fish porter since the age of 14. During this time the market was operating on the banks of the River Thames near the heart of the City of London’s commercial area. Fish was transported to the market from big fishing ports such as Hull and Grimsby on England’s North Sea coast and even further afield such as the Scottish ports. The ships docked at the river entrance to the market and crated fish, stored on ice, would be pushed by porters on trolleys to their destination in the market, whilst large single fish would be carried on porters’ heads which were protected by a unique leather ‘bowler hat’.
As per custom, the crates would be moved first and the large fish at the end of the process. There was an extensive gambolling (read: run or jump playfully) culture in the market and it wasn’t uncommon for betting on who could move their large fish load up to the market the quickest. It was during one of these ‘bets’ that my father reached the steps of the market first and there he encountered a photographer who asked my father if he could take his picture. The photographer was Bill Brandt and the picture taken is one of his iconic real yet surrealist takes on everyday life in his newly adopted city. It was some fifty years or so before this image came to light to the family as my father had never seen the finished print. Since then we (the family and I), have seen it exhibited in some of the world’s greatest galleries and museums, including a Bill Brandt retrospective at London’s Victoria and Albert Museum, where we were interviewed by the trustees of the Brandt archive (my mother proudly passed on valuable information regarding the photograph). I am very honored that this image in now also exhibited in New York at the MoMA gallery.
-Jack Delmonte, 2013
I’m very excited that this print is being shown so close to home. And, as a descendant of the brother that came to the US (Ernie was a descendant of the brother who stayed in the UK, fleeing Germany), I’m thrilled that he’s got our DNA in the halls of the MOMA!
Bill Brandt has been argued to be one of the most important British photographers of the 20th century. He specialized in high contrast images and the influence of his time spent with surrealist Man Ray can be seen in his art.
Bill Brandt: Shadow and Light is on view at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City, March 6 – Aug. 12, 2013.
Jack Delmonte’s photography can be found at: http://www.tedlemon.com.