On View Now: Ilse Bing, Queen of the Leica
Ilse Bing (1899–1998)
Ilse Bing was one of several women photographers in the inter-war period. Born into a Jewish family in Frankfurt, she pursued an academic career before being inspired by Florence Henri and moving to Paris in 1930 to concentrate on photography.
Ilse began using photography to illustrate her doctoral History of Art thesis on Architecture. She bought a Voigtlander camera in 1928 and began to teach herself photography. The following year she bought a Leica, the revolutionary 35mm hand-held camera that enabled her to capture movement. She eventually began working as a photojournalist for the German magazine, Das Illustriete Blatt. Commissioned to photograph the Frankfurt housing projects, Ilse used the ‘new photography’ style of extreme angles, modernist framing, and deep shadows.
Moving to Paris in 1930, she started being published in L’Illustration, Le Monde Illustré and Regards, and from about 1932, in fashion magazines Vogue and Harper’s Bazaar. She photographed the Moulin Rouge and the theatre, capturing the movement and energy of the times, and was among the first to use solarisation – photographing at night using sensitive film and an electronic flash.
In the 1930s, Ilse’s work began to become recognised in the US. She visited New York in 1936 and captured sidewalk scenes and shop frontages (Barber College, New York), evocative of American realist painting. She also responded to the modern architecture she found there, (The Daily News Building and Chrysler Building tops, New York) like her contemporary Berenice Abbott. She exhibited in fashionable galleries in Paris and New York City, and appeared in MoMA’s first survey exhibition of photography, Photography 1839–1937 (1937).
Ilse returned to France in 1937, only to have to flee the war in 1941, with the help of Harper’s Bazaar. Her prints were left behind at that time and many were sadly lost. Work in photojournalism was sparse during the war; however – while subsisting on teaching and taking children’s portraits – Ilse continued to exhibit her work throughout the late 1940s and early 1950s.
Ilse bequeathed a number of her prints to the V&A, including originals from the 1930s and 40s, as well as later prints. Her work is also held in the ICP, NGA and Moma. Her photography is featured in the summer 2021 publication of The New Woman Behind the Camera, a phenomenal project exploring the work of the diverse ‘new women’ photographers of the 1920s through the 1950s. It accompanies an exhibition organised jointly by the National Gallery of Art, Washington, and The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.
By Paula Vellet