Ilse Bing

In Paris in 1932, a critic called Ilse Bing the “Queen of the Leica.” Her work
in photojournalism, fashion, and advertising utilized this new camera, fast film,
and darkroom techniques of polarization and cropping. The resulting photographs
diminished the distinction between commercial and artistic photography. Her
work was highly influential in France in the 1930s when many émigré artists were
energized by the cross fertilization of disciplines that contributed to modern photo-
graphy.

Louis and Johanna (Katz) Bing’s daughter was born in Frankfurt on March 23, 1899.
They were affluent and occasionally observant Jews who provided their daughter
with a liberal education including music and art. In 1920, Ilse Bing entered the Uni-
versity of Frankfurt to study mathematics and physics. By 1923, her interests had
changed, and she was in Vienna studying art history. She returned to the University
of Frankfurt in 1924 to pursue a doctorate. In 1929, she purchased a new Leica, be-
came devoted to photography, and abandoned her studies. Family and friends ostra-
cized her for working at the Frankfurter Illustrierte as a photo essayist, a job they
considered to be menial. She immersed herself in this new work and in developing
her artistic abilities. As Ilse Bing told Nancy Barrett in a 1985 interview, “I didn’t choose
photography, it chose me.... Now over 50 years later, I can look back and explain it. In a
way it was the trend of the time; it was the time when you started to see differently ...
the beginning of the mechanical device penetrating into the field of art.” She struggled
to fuse representation and abstraction. Her work consistently challenged the line bet-
ween art and commercial photography. She saw beauty in subjects others did not no-
tice. She focused attention on materials, surfaces, architectural spaces, nuances of move-
ment, and texture. Her lifelong love of mathematics and science has always informed her
work.

Moving to Paris in 1930, Bing instantly loved the city. She participated in the avante-
garde movement that affected all aspects of creative life: exhibitions, journals, per-
formances. The leaders were largely self-taught émigré artists such as Man Ray, André
Kertesz, Paver Tchelitchev, Germaine Krull, and Florence Henri. Tchelitchev commis-
sioned Bing to photograph a ballet Errante, using only ambient light. The results were
acclaimed. The Leitz Corporation was so impressed that they sent her new wideangle
and telephoto lenses for experimentation. She worked for the fashion designer Schiaparelli,
Harper’s Bazaar, Vuand various weekly newspapers. After Hitler’s rise to power in 1933,
she refused to work for German magazines. She built a successful career doing architec-
tural, advertising, theater, and portrait photography. Her art photography was shown in
leading galleries and exhibitions. By 1932, her work was exhibited in New York at Julien
Levy’s gallery.

In 1936, she was invited to New York by the author Hendrik Willem Van Loon. Her popu-
larity brought commissions, a one-person show, meetings with photographer Alfred
Stieglitz, and a job offer at the popular Life magazine. She returned to Paris in 1937 to
marry Konrad Wolff, a pianist and musicologist. That year Beaumont Newhall selected
her work for his important 1937 photography exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art.
Bing did less work in the late 1930s, describing herself as fulfilled and accomplished,
yet searching for something different. In 1940, she was jailed in France by the Vichy
government at Camp Gurs, but she was able to immigrate to New York the following
year.

Ilse Bing struggled to forge a new life among many talented refugees. By 1947, she
had found a new style using an electronic flash and a large-format Rolleiflex. Her
scale was larger, and her subjects projected a sense of isolation and stillness. A de-
cade later she was working exclusively in color, doing all her own developing. Her
work was highly praised, but in 1959 she stopped photographing. Instead, she wrote
poetry in German, French, and English and constructed collages often using old photo-
graphs. Bing’s work was rediscovered after being included in a 1976 exhibition at the
Museum of Modern Art and a subsequent exhibition at the Witkin Gallery. A retro-
spective exhibition of her work was organized by the New Orleans Museum of Art in
1985, followed by exhibitions at the International Center of Photography in New York,
the Baltimore Museum, and Musée Carnavalet in Paris. In 1993, the National Arts Club
awarded her their Gold Medal for photography. Bing died in Paris on March 10, 1998,
just before her ninetyninth birthday.

Ilse Bing’s legacy is her photographs. Many images fascinate because they eloquently
represent vanished lives, events, and places. She developed a mature style characte-
rized by strong diagonals and an overhead axis, reflective surfaces, focused pools of
light, clarity of textures, and regrouping of real objects out of their context. Her pho-
tographs convey a strong sense of time continuing, not as a moment frozen. Her domi-
nant aesthetic is grounded in constructivism, but in Paris she forged this with a sensi-
bility learned from the surrealists, dadaists, and neo-romantics. After fifty years, her
vision remains compelling. She leaves work rich in craftsmanship and aesthetics upon
which others can build. She was an artist who seized the moment and is recognized as
a pioneer in the birth of modern photography. [Here work was exhibited in Germany in
the Berlinsche Galerie and the Bauhaus Archiv Dessau and also in the Folkwang Museum
in Essen.]

Jane Kamine

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