Home Is Where the Art Is: Ilse Bing, Queen of the Leica

Home Is Where the Art Is: Ilse Bing, Queen of the Leica


Hello. I’m Barbara Tannenbaum, Curator of Photography at the Cleveland Museum of Art. Today we’re going to talk about the exhibition Ilse Bing: Queen of the Leica. This show explores the photojournalism, fine art and fashion photography of a woman whose life and career were thrown off course by major events in world history. “I didn’t choose photography; it chose me,” Ilse Bing declared. She was born in 1899 to a well-to-do merchant family in Frankfurt, Germany. She received her first camera as a present for her 14th birthday, and this is the first photograph she took with it It was a simple Kodak box camera—a camera advertised as being so simple even a child could use it. How fascinating that her first picture was a self-portrait done by shooting her reflection in a mirror. This is a format she would return to throughout her career. For the next fifteen years, Bing would remain just an occasional “snapshooter.”. In her late 20s, Bing was working on a doctorate in art history. She had to buy a better camera because she needed to photograph the buildings of an 18th century architect to illustrate her dissertation. This shot looking out of the doorway of a small historic pilgrimage church shows her photographic style at the time —soft focus, warm tones, somewhat romantic in feel— a style that belongs to the early 1900s, even though it was taken in 1929. Bing shot it on a departmental field trip that would change her life forever. At one of the collections the group visited, the 30-year old art historian saw her first painting by Vincent Van Gogh–which was radically modern art at the time. She instantly decided to abandon art history and become an artist—but not a painter. Photography, she recalled, “was the trend of the time.” And the newest trend in photography was the Leica, a small, lightweight German camera. The camera on the left is the same model as the one Bing bought in spring 1929, when she gave up art history to become a professional photographer. In fact, she was the first professional to wholly adopt this 35mm single-lens camera. She brought such inventiveness and originality to this innovative technology that a critic soon dubbed her the “Queen of the Leica.” The camera’s revolutionary technical characteristics encouraged spontaneity, experimentation, and boldness. Because the viewfinder was located directly above the lens, the camera was held up to the photographer’s eye to frame and shoot, as you can see in this self portrait. Its light weight and “miniature” size were freeing, making it easy to hold the apparatus at unusual angles. “I felt this small camera became a continuation of my eye which moved around with me,” said Bing. Sheet film cameras, prevalent at the time, had to be reloaded after each shot. But the Leica used 36-exposure rolls, which allowed you to take 36 photographs in rapid succession before you had to reload. The 35mm film had originally been developed for motion picture cameras. Bing’s Leica is prominently featured in this self-portrait, which she made in 1931 but did not exhibit until the 1970s. You can see how she set it up in the contact sheet on the left, a print made from Bing’s original strip of film in the mid-1990s by photographer Abe Frajndlich. The setup required two mirrors and a sheet of cardboard, which she cropped out in final prints, to block part of the reflection. Note how much her style has changed from the romantic scenes of Lake Constance! The tonalities here are cool and neutral, the focus much sharper, and the feel very modern. The picture declares Ilse Bing’s identity as a photographer. In fact, it captures her in the act of taking the very picture that we are looking at. That self-portrait was made shortly after Bing moved to Paris, which was then the center of the art world. Bing photographed her adopted city for her own pleasure, but also on assignment for German and French magazines and newspapers. She shot its monuments, nightlife, and amusements, such as this ride at a Parisian street fair. “The moment I put my foot on the Paris pavement,” she said,”I knew it was my atmosphere.” Bing’s avant-garde style—verging on abstraction but always grounded in reality and sometimes surrealism—quickly brought her magazine commissions to shoot Paris, its wonders, and its inhabitants. She was one of many modernist photographers who shot the Eiffel Tower in the mid-1920s and 1930s. The structure’s irregular grid of thick black lines and shapes, set on bold diagonals, suited the modernists’ interest in geometric compositions, while its height aided their exploration of unusual viewpoints. Bing began to receive fashion commissions after she covered an annual ball celebrating Paris’s couture industry for a newspaper, Her images of jewelry, handbags, and shoes landed her an exclusive contract to shoot all of the stories on accessories from Paris for the American fashion magazine Harper’s Bazaar. Bing also worked closely with Elsa Schiaparelli, one of the most prominent Parisian clothing designers between the World Wars. The two women met in fall 1933 and worked together through 1934. Both were strong-minded and successful women who shared affinities for Surrealism and fantasy. In her views of this Schiaparelli dress, Bing emphasizes the glistening, sleek fabric and the silhouettes of the puffs at the shoulders. Bing approached all her work, whether commercial or personal, as fine art. Her photographs, including a number made for commercial purposes, were exhibited during the 1930s in galleries and museums including the Louvre and New York’s Museum of Modern Art, and were written about in art magazines. An example is this photograph, which was published in a magazine review alongside Bing’s personal work. It was a commission from Schiaparelli to create a promotional image for a newly launched perfume called Salut, a French word that translates as both a casual, chirpy “hi” and as “salvation.” Bing’s picture is formal, yet also fanciful and disturbing: the head of a sleeping beauty is surrounded by lilies. While the flowers may have been a component of the scent, lilies are also associated with funerals. While the picture garnered critical acclaim and became one of Bing’s best known, it was never used to advertise the perfume perhaps because of its somber mood and ambiguous symbolism. In 1936, one of Bing’s patrons arranged for her to spend almost two months in New York City. She recalled that the scale of the city made her feel like “an atom wandering in the universe,” a sensation echoed in her view of Manhattan’s skyscrapers taken from an elevated train platform. She hid a minuscule self-portrait in the glass cover of the coin-operated scale on the platform. It echoes the self-portrait she made in her first photo and also the 1931 Self-Portrait with Leica, all of which emphasize her identity as a photographer. Bing delighted in photographing in Central Park, where she made this portrait of Rose, the much-beloved hippopotamus of the Central Park Zoo. The photographer and her work were enthusiastically received in New York. She had a solo gallery exhibition and met with magazine officials at Fortune, Time, and Life, which was then still in the planning stages. Despite possible employment, she returned to Paris to marry pianist and musicologist Konrad Wolff. Returning to Paris was an unfortunate decision. Four years later, in 1940, the Nazis invaded France. Bing and her husband, who were both German Jews, were interned in camps in southern France. They eventually gained release and in June 1941 immigrated to New York. The reception Bing received this time in New York was far colder than the one in 1936. One of numerous refugee artists, she found it terribly difficult to establish an equally successful career in this new culture. One of the things Bing did to try to reinvigorate her art was to switch to a different camera- -a Rolleiflex, which is a twin lens, medium-format camera. Its larger negatives allowed her to make bigger prints and offered “greater depth of field and clearer details than ever before with the Leica.” This striking study of light and shadow is one of the works using this new format. It has not just formal but also emotional content. Bing’s sense of isolation and alienation in New York can be intuited from this view of a window that reveals nothing of the outside world. It is tempting to interpret this desiccated tree, taken in 1955, as foretelling Bing’s decision to give up photography in 1959 at age 60. “I had nothing more to say. . . . I did not want to repeat myself.” She channeled her creative energy instead into drawing, collage, and writing poetry. To earn a living, Bing became a dog groomer. In the mid-1970s, the art world started to finally recognize photography as a fully-fledged fine art. At the same time, it experienced a renewed fascination with 1930s modernism and, and thanks to the women’s movement, developed an interest in women artists. This combination of factors helped spark rediscovery of Bing’s art. Even though Bing was close to 80 when she was rediscovered, she was able to enjoy over two decades back in the art world spotlight. Ilse Bing died in New York City in 1998 two weeks before a retrospective exhibition that opened on what would have been her 99th birthday. Although she is gone, Bing’s work lives on to inform, entertain, and inspire us.

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