“I didn’t choose photography; it chose me. I didn’t know it at the time. An artist doesn’t think first then do it, he is driven.” -Ilse Bing
Small format maverick
Photography in Paris in the 1930s was dominated by large format cameras shooting sheets of film usually 4-by-5 inches or 8-by-10 inches in size. Medium format cameras shooting rolls 2-1/4 inches wide were also popular. No professional photographer at that time worked exclusively with the 35mm Leica camera except for Ilse Bing.
She was born in Frankfurt, Germany into a well-to-do family. She was tutored in art and music. She was studying for a doctorate in art history. Her dissertation involved photographing buildings. She became passionate about photography and in 1929 began shooting picture essays for a weekly supplement for a local newspaper. She was one of a very small number of women photojournalists.
Ilse Bing left for Paris in 1929 after attending an exhibition of photographs by Florence Henri. She mastered using the Leica and the darkroom to bring out the play of light, shadows and movement against the dark Parisian night. She worked with available light to make her studies of light and dark shadows. She discovered a way to solarize negatives around the time Man Ray was flashing paper in the developing tray to get a similar effect. She did this independently of him (opening photo, top row, third from left).
Bing caught the angles of everyday life in Paris as did her contemporaries, Henri Cartier-Bresson and André Kertész. She produced images for magazines including Vu, Le Monde Illustre and Artes et Metiers Graphiques. Her fashion photography appeared in Harper’s Bazaar and in ads for Schiaparelli (opening photo, top row, first and last photos respectively).
Avant-garde on display
During the 1930s, Bing’s work appeared regularly along with other avant-garde photographers at Paris’ La Pleiade gallery. Her work was included in the Louvre in its first exhibit of modern photography in 1936. The next year saw her photography on show at the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in New York.
One of her best-known photographs from this period is a self-portrait in a pair of mirrors that created a dual view image — one of her straight on and the other a side view of her looking through her Leica mounted on a tripod.
Turns down Life
Ilse Bing visited New York in 1936 where she was offered a position at the then startup magazine Life. She chose to stay in Paris where her husband to be, a musicologist and pianist, Konrad Wolff lived. They married the next year. In 1940 they were interned because they were both German Jews. They sailed for New York where they took up permanent residence. They were together until Konrad’s death in 1989.
Ilse Bing received the first Gold Medal for photography by the National Arts Club in Manhatten in 1993. Her work will appear in “Underexposed: Women Photographers” from the Collection of the High Museum opening April 17–August 1, 2021. In the following video, Sarah Kennel, the High’s Keough Family Curator of Photography shares more about Ilse Bing.
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