Ilse Bing is a name I know through her self-portraits, which are published in a few books on photography I own. The chapters they are published in are invariable about female photographers and their portrayal of themselves, and I find it interesting that the images I remember of this woman are OF her BY her and not just the images made by her. If you are interested in self-portrait work, have a look at Cindy Sherman‘s work.


Ilse Bing was born on the 23rd of March 1899 into a Jewish family in Frankfurt-am-Main, Germany. As a child, her education was rich in music and art and her intellectual development was encouraged. In 1920 she enrolled at the University of Frankfurt for a degree in mathematics and physics, but soon changed to study History of Art. Needing to illustrate her thesis, Bing bought a Voigtlander camera in 1928 and started to teach herself photography. The following year she bought a Leica, the new and revolutionary 35mm hand-held camera that had been commercially introduced just three years earlier and enabled photographers to capture fast-moving events.

Her move from Frankfurt to the burgeoning avant-garde and surrealist scene in Paris in 1930 marked the start of the most notable period of her career. She produced images in the fields of photojournalism, architectural photography, advertising and fashion, and her work was published in magazines such as Le Monde Illustre, Harper’s Bazaar, and Vogue. Respected for her use of daring perspectives, unconventional cropping, use of natural light, and geometries, she also discovered a type of solarisation for negatives independently of a similar process developed by the artist Man Ray.

Her rapid success as a photographer and her position as the only professional in Paris to use an advanced Leica camera earned her the title “Queen of the Leica” from the critic and photographer Emmanuel Sougez, who was himself famous for using a large plate camera. Bing achieved a certain dynamism in her work through the use of cropped compositions, quirky angles and aerial views – all visual tropes of the New Photography movement. However, Sougez particularly admired Bing’s photographs of dancers, where movement and blurring were captured on a sensitive night film in a manner which is particular to her work. These photographs have a graininess to them, possibly the result of enlarging details from a small-format Leica negative. This quality was much admired by Sougez, who claimed that Bing was able to express the ‘enchantment with which reality is enveloped’.

In America however, the technique of enlarging from a smaller negative was met with some disapproval. In a letter from her New York gallerist Julien Levy, Bing was advised not to enlarge from the negative. This suggests that American audiences (and clients) were influenced by Alfred Stieglitz, who insisted that prints should not be enlarged or cropped from the original negative.

In 1936, her work was included in the first modern photography exhibition held at the Louvre, and in 1937 she travelled to New York where her images were included in the landmark exhibition “Photography 1839–1937” at the Museum of Modern Art. In 1937, she married Konrad Wolf, a German pianist. She remained in Paris for ten years, but in the shadow of World War II, she and her husband immigrated to New York City in 1941. There, she had to re-establish her reputation, and got steady work in portraiture. By 1947, Bing came to the realization that New York had revitalized her art. Her style was very different; the softness that characterized her work in the 1930s gave way to hard forms and clear lines, with a sense of harshness and isolation.

For a short time in the 1950s, Bing experimented with color, but soon gave up photography altogether. She felt the medium was no longer adequate for her, and seemed to have tired of it. In the last few decades of her life, she wrote poetry, made drawings and collages, and occasionally incorporated bits of photos.

Ilse Bing passed away in Manhattan, NYC, on the 10th of March, 1998.


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