Thursday, September 2, 2010

Ilse Bing - Queen of the Leica

 Ilse Bing, Self-Portrait in Mirrors, 1931

Ilse Bing (1899-1998) was born into a comfortable Jewish family in Frankfurt-am-Main, Germany. In 1920, she enrolled at the University of Frankfurt for a degree in mathematics and physics, but soon changed to study History of Art. To illustrate her doctorate on the Neo-Classical German architect Friedrich Gilly, Bing bought a Leica in 1929, the new revolutionary 35mm hand-held camera that enabled photographers to capture fast-moving events. Like Gisèle Freund (who also, in the late 1920s, studied History of Art in Frankfurt), Bing started to teach herself photography. In 1929, while still pursuing her studies, Bing started to gain photojournalism commissions for the image magazine Frankfurter Illustrierte

Ilse Bing, Hellerhofsiedlung Frankfurt - my shadow and the shadow of the architect Mart Stam on the roof, 1930

At this time, Bing also started collaborating with the architect Mart Stam, who taught at the Bauhaus school of design from 1928 and was appointed chief architect to Das Neue Frankfurt (The New Frankfurt), a major construction project in 1929. Stam commissioned Bing to record all of his housing projects. He also introduced her to Frankfurt's avant-garde circles, in particular that of artist Ella Bergman-Michel and her husband Robert, patrons of the arts who frequently hosted artists such as El Lissitzky, Kurt Schwitters, and Hannah Höch at their house. 

Ilse Bing, Photomontage of projects by Mart Stam from the 1920s, 1930

In 1930, Mart Stam became one of the 20 architects, organized by Frankfurt city planner Ernst May, who traveled to the Soviet Union to create a string of new industrial cities, including the gigantic steel mills of Magnitogorsk. The same year, Bing finally gave up her thesis to fully concentrate on photography. In 1931, greatly impressed by an exhibition of modern photography in Frankfurt, especially by the work of Paris-based Swiss photographer Florence Henri, Ilse Bing decided to move to Paris. Paris, at the time, was an epicentre of developments in modern photography, and, until the Second World War, a safe heaven for many artists who had fled their increasingly repressive home countries.

Ilse Bing, Eiffel Tower with the thermometer, ca. 1932

Gradually, Bing started to publish work in the leading French illustrated newspapers such as L'Illustration and Le Monde Illustré, and from 1932, increasingly worked for Vogue and Harpers Bazaar. When on assignment, Bing would take extra pictures that satisfied her own artistic interests. During a commission to photograph the Moulin Rouge, she made a series of photographs of dancers which were exhibited in the gallery window at the newly-established publishing house La Pléiade in 1931. This was her first exhibition. 

 Ilse Bing, Can Can Dancer at the Moulin Rouge, 1931

Later in 1931, Bing's photographs were included in the 26th Salon Internationale d'Art Photographique. They quickly caught the attention of the photographer and critic Emmanuel Sougez who praised the dynamism of the photographs and christened Bing "the Queen of the Leica". The same year, Bing met the Dutch-American writer Hendrik Willem van Loon who became her most important patron and introduced her work to American clients. During the 1930s, Bing frequently exhibited in Parisian galleries, where her work was shown alongside that of Brassaï, Henri Cartier-Bresson, Florence Henri, Man Ray and André Kértesz. In 1933, Bing met her future husband Konrad Wolff, a German pianist living in the same block of flats, and whose music she would hear drifting up to her apartment.

 Ilse Bing, Shoes, for Harpers Bazaar, 1935

In 1936, Ilse Bing was given a solo exhibition at the June Rhodes gallery in New York. Hosted by her patron Van Loon, she travelled to the USA, where she stayed for three months, during which time she made photographs in New York and Connecticut. Bing was greatly impressed by New York. In an interview in the New York World Telegraph entitled "Famous German Woman sees life in New York as Transitory and Wild", Bing spoke of her excitement with the "jazz rhythm" of New York, stating that "I did not find the New York skyline big like rocks. It is more natural than that, like crystals in the mountains, little things grown up." During her stay, Bing met Alfred Stieglitz. This meeting was, she later stated, a major event in her life and we can see the influence of Stieglitz's vision on Bing's photographs of New York. Bing was ranked among the leading photographers of the time, with her work included in the important exhibition Photography 1839-1937 at the Museum of Modern Art.

 Ilse Bing, Empire State Building, 1936

In 1938, Bing and Wolff moved together to live in their new, elegant apartment on Boulevard Jourdan. However, the photographs Bing made of the splendid views across Paris towards Sacré Coeur from her balcony of this apartment were some of her last in Paris. The outbreak of the Second World War changed everything. In 1940 Bing and Wolff were forced to leave Paris and, both Jews, were interned in separate camps in the South of France. Bing spent six weeks in the notorious Gurs camp, before rejoining her husband in Marseille. The couple spent nine months there, awaiting visas for America. Eventually, with the support of the fashion editor of Harpers Bazaar, they were able to leave for New York in June 1941. 

Ilse Bing, Fokker Plane, Amsterdam 1933

Five years after her visit to New York in 1936, Ilse Bing now returned to an altogether different environment. Partly because of the large number of photographers who had also fled Europe and were seeking work, Bing found it hard to gain commissions for reportage work and worked much less as a photojournalist from this point on. In the late 1950s, Bing eventually gave up photography, wanting to go beyond the figurative and work in a more generalised, abstract mode with poems and line drawings, and later, collage.

 Ilse Bing, Three men on steps by the Seine, Paris 1931

In 1976, the Museum of Modern Art in New York acquired some of Bing's work. Her work was included in a touring exhibition, organised by the Art Institute of Chicago. A collection, including a large number of Bing's prints, was eventually acquired by the Art Institute. From this point, Bing's work was exhibited more frequently in museums and commercial galleries and acquired by American and French museums. Aged 99, Ilse Bing died 1998 in New York.


  1. Thanks for this blog, I'm really enjoying your writing on artists I've admired and being introduced to those I haven't discovered yet.

  2. Just found you, very happy to be here. Very happy. Beautiful work. Thank you for doing this...

  3. Thanks for your kind comments, dear Kathy and Victoria ;)))

  4. I've discovered your blog a few days ago and liked the way you transmit a certain knowledge without being shallow, nor too deep (this last part seems to have become an internet rule. I hope it doesn't bleed too much into our intellectual lives)
    I've allowed myself (another internet rule... which should allways include the source...)to reblog two pictures from Ilse Bing. The first one (Photomontage of projects by Architect Mart Stam from the 1920s) I found very interesting because I think that back then this presentation looked very modern using relatively new techniques (photomontage). It gives us a good perspective for today's very sophisticated, multi-media architectural project presentation.
    The second picture I chose was the photo of the shoes. The quality of this photo reminds me strongly of some "nature morte" by Paul Outerbridge Jr.