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Ilse Bing


BING, ILSE (1900–1998), photographer. Born into an affluent family in Frankfurt, Germany, Bing was trained in music and art. While she pursued a doctorate in art history and photographed buildings for her dissertation, she developed a passion for photography. In early 1929 she produced picture essays for a Frankfurt newspaper, but she decided to leave for Paris that summer after seeing an exhibition of photographs by Florence Henri, an exponent of New Photography, which was characterized by tight close-ups, unusual angles and the rendering of everyday objects as abstract geometric forms. In the 1930s Bing used the newly marketed 35-millimeter Leica as an extension of her personal vision, and she mastered darkroom techniques to show the subtleties of light and movement against the treacherous streets of Paris at night. She favored overhead shots and tilted angles of German Constructivists, but her photographs were often infused with softer, more lyrical and humanistic qualities.

Like Andre Ketesz and Henri Cartier-Bresson, she caught the spare geometries in ordinary Parisian life. She photographed at night with available light and produced images that were studies of light and deep shadow. She said that as she walked through Paris with her camera, reacting intuitively to what she saw, she was unencumbered by thoughts about "making art." She became a technical innovator, improvising lenses, experimenting with cropping, and discovering the dramatic effects of solarization, which produces a black outline resulting from the controlled use of light during printing. She discovered the process by accident in the darkroom, she said. Her photographs were regularly shown in galleries in Paris in the 1930s alongside the work of other members of the photographic avant-garde. In 1936 she was included in the first modern photography exhibition held at the Louvre, and the next year she was part of the landmark photography show at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. Her best-known work from that period is a self-portrait. She photographed a mirror image of herself, one bent arm leaning against a table, a Leica on a tripod positioned in front of one eye, with a side view of herself reflected in another mirror.

When Bing visited New York in 1936 she was offered a position with the new Life magazine but she rejected the offer because her future husband, Konrad Wolff, a pianist and musicologist, lived in Paris. They married in 1937. Three years later, as German Jews, they were interned as enemy aliens by the Vichy government but managed to get themselves free. Later in 1940 they sailed for New York, where they remained for the rest of their lives. Bing continued to photograph, changing to the larger format Rolleiflex in 1950 and working intensively in color from 1957 to 1959. That year, she gave up photography because, she said, "everything moves, nothing stays and I should not hold on." Bing turned to poetry, creating what she called "snapshots without a camera." She also made collages with old photographs and objects, and illustrated whimsical books on etymology and on numbers. Her dealer described her as "very sharp, very funny and very active – she took up the motorcycle when she was in her 70s." For a living, she groomed dogs.

[Stewart Kampel (2nd ed.)]

Source: Encyclopaedia Judaica. © 2008 The Gale Group. All Rights Reserved.