Ilse Bing’s photograph, Paris, Eiffel Tower with Branches, was taken in 1933 during the midst of her own self-discovery.
Bing was born into an upper middle class Jewish family in Germany in 1899. Her family encouraged her academic education as well as her development in the arts and music. She enrolled in University of Frankfurt for a degree in mathematics and physics but changed to pursue the history of art. Later, starting her doctorate with the German architect Friedrich Gilly in 1929, Bing bought a camera to illustrate her thesis. Soon, Bing was working with a German photojournalism magazine, and collaborating with avant-garde artists in the area. Deeply intrigued by the power of photography, Bing eventually gave up her thesis and moved to the center of avant-garde photography: Paris, France.
During her early years in Paris, Bing continued to work with German publications. While on commissions, she took photographs for her own artistic archives. Her collection of personal photographs comprised her first exhibition in 1931. After Hitler’s rise in power, Bing stopped working with German publications. Expanding her work to include commercial photography, she started photographing for fashion magazines such as Paris Vogue and Harper’s Bazaar.
In Paris, modern photography was developing with the technology that produced new opportunity for artistic creations. At the epicenter, self-taught artists like Man Ray, Germaine Krull and Florence Henri embraced the new photographic characteristics of unusual angles, extreme close-ups, and reflected, abstract geometric forms. Without the formalities of conventional compositions, the new style called modern photography allowed artists to simply capture the everyday visuals of living. Emerging alongside the modernist photographers in Paris, Bing found that by combining representation and abstraction she developed a talent for clear documentation of her world.
Embracing innovation and independence, Bing spent the decade pioneering her own style by expressing a blend of romanticism, surrealism, and symbolism. Her background in mathematics and physics gave her an eye for abstract spaces, unconventional angles, and geometric structures. Bing captured compelling visions of vanished lives, events, and places in our history. In Paris, Eiffel Tower with Branches, Bing uses the high vantage point to show the geometric lines in the architecture of the Eiffel Tower. The upward angle of the tower contrasts with the nearby branches as if taken glimpsed during a walk. In a more defined analysis, the junction of lines suggests Bing’s deliberate photographic frame, highlighting the mystery and allure of the particular spot.
As members of the Jewish religion, Bing and her husband, Konrad Wolff, a German pianist, fled Paris with the outbreak of World War II. After spending nine months in Marseille, a region in France under “Vichy” control at the time, the couple was able to leave for New York in 1941 with the help of the fashion editor of Harper’s Bazaar. In the 1940s and 1950s, Bing continued experimenting with photographs using electronic flashes and color. Her work shifted with the changes in fashion and the post-WWII atmosphere. Bing started using larger scales and isolated subjects, suggesting a detachment from society.
She gave up photography in the late 1950s because she no longer felt satisfied with the expressive power of the medium. Wanting to go beyond the constructs of photography, Bing started writing poetry in German, French, and English, as well as making collages from her old photographs. In the late 1970s, Bing’s work had a revival in numerous museums, such as the Museum of Modern Art in New York and the Kunstverein in Frankfurt.
Bing is an icon of modernist photography, using her artistic expression to capture everyday life in photojournalism and commercial advertising. Her work is still celebrated, as her photographs remain captivating in any context. Key to developments in photographic technology, she was nicknamed the “Queen of Leica” for being one of the first to master the advanced Leica camera. While technically advanced, Bing’s images also show she is creative and accomplished.
Whether it was shooting timeless photographs to preserve the memories of places and moments, working commercially with impressive leaders of the fashion world, or taking up motorcycle riding in her 70s, Bing satisfied her thirst to experience the beautiful ebullience in the world.
Eliza Lewis SC ’17
Wilson Art Administration Intern ’14