“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
Ilse Bing was an American-German photojournalist and commercial photographer born in 1899 to a Jewish family, she went on to study at universities in Frankfurt and Vienna.
She initially enrolled at the University of Frankfurt to study mathematics in 1920, but eventually moved to Vienna to study art history. In 1924, Bing began a doctoral program studying architecture. Ilse Bing became interested in photography while creating illustrations for her dissertation at Universität Frankfurt on the eighteenth century German architect, Friedrich Gilly. As her enthusiasm for the new medium increased, she gave up her art history career to devote herself full-time to photography.
In 1929, inspired by the work of Florence Henri, Bing moved to Paris to work with Henri and other Modernists. Like László Moholy-Nagy, the self taught Bing turned her photographs upside-down and sideways to assess their compositional relationships; like Kurt Schwitters, she was attracted to the banal details of urban living–torn tram tickets, gate latches, and other apparently minor objects.
She purchased a Leica camera as a student, and though she was entirely self-taught, she achieved rapid recognition as a professional and artistic photographer with commissions from prominent publications earning her the moniker “Queen of the Leica.” She moved to Paris in 1930, where her work was exhibited alongside contemporaries such as André Kértesz, Brassaï, and Man Ray.
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. In 1936, her work was included in the first modern photography exhibition held at the Louvre, and in 1937 she traveled to New York City where her images were included in the landmark exhibition “Photography 1839–1937” at the Museum of Modern Art.
She remained in Paris for ten years, but in 1940, when Paris was taken by the Germans during World War II, she and her husband who were both Jewish, were expelled and interned in separate camps in the South of France. Bing spent six weeks in a camp in Gurs, in the Pyrenees, before rejoining her husband in Marseille, where they waited for nine months for the US visas. They were finally able to leave for America in June 1941. There, she had to re-establish her reputation, and although she got steady work in portraiture, she failed to receive important commissions as in Paris.
When Bing and her husband fled Paris, she was unable to bring her prints and left them with a friend for safekeeping. Following the war, her friend shipped Bing’s prints to her in New York, but Bing could not afford the custom fees to claim them all. Some of her original prints were lost when Bing had to choose which prints to keep.
By 1947, Bing came to the realisation that New York had revitalised her art. Her style was very different; the softness that characterised her work in the 1930s gave way to hard forms and clear lines, with a sense of harshness and isolation. This was indicative of how Bing’s life and worldview had been changed by her move to New York and the war-related events of the 1940s.
For a short time in the 1950s, Bing experimented with colour, 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 mid-1970s, the Museum of Modern Art purchased and showed several of her photographs. This show sparked renewed interest in Bing’s work, and subsequent exhibitions included a solo show at the Witkins Gallery in 1976, and a traveling retrospective entitled, ”Ilse Bing: Three Decades of Photography,” organised by the New Orleans Museum of Art. In 1993, the National Arts Club awarded her the first gold medal for photography.
In the last few decades of her life, she wrote poetry, made drawings and collages, and occasionally incorporated bits of photos. She was interested in combining mathematics, words, and images. When she gave up photography in the 1950s, Ilse Bing noted that she had said all she wanted to say with a camera.