Can Can Dancer, Moulin Rouge, 1931
Ilse Bing was a leader among those who made Paris the center of modern photography in the 1930s. Moving in a milieu that included the likes of Cartier-Bresson, Man Ray, and Brassaï, she came to be known as “Queen of the Leica” for her influential mastery of the hand-held camera that revolutionised the medium in the period. Fleeing the war, she emigrated to New York in 1941 and, although she retired from photography in 1959, her career was rediscovered in the late 1970s and was celebrated in a series of major retrospectives. She died in 1998, just a few days before her 99th birthday.
Born into a bourgeois Jewish family in Frankfurt, Ilse Bing seemed set for an academic career but abandoned it to devote herself to photography. In 1930 she moved to Paris and began an extraordinary decade that saw her working in photojournalism, portraiture, advertising. She also shot fashion accessories for Harper’s Bazaar. She won commercial success even while establishing herself at the forefront of the city’s avant-garde, and she forged a distinctive personal style by blending all the vital currents that were then shaping the medium. She adored the romanticism, symbolism and dream-imagery of Surrealism; she shared the technological enthusiasms and love of startling perspectives that intrigued advocates of ‘New Vision’ photography; and she accepted the creed of documentary photographers who were striving to produce truer and more incisive records of the world.
Her Self-Portrait with Leica (1931) remains an icon of modernist photography, and an emblem of a time when many women were embracing modernity and independence, along with the new opportunities that technology afforded for artistic expression.
Ilse Bing: Photography Through the Looking Glass, a major monograph by Larisa Dryansky, was published by Abrams in 2006. An important retrospective of her work exhibited at the New Orleans Museum of Art in 1985, and the International Center of Photography, New York, in 1986; a survey was also held at the Musée Carnavalet, Paris, in 1988.. Her work can be found in many major public collections including the Metropolitan Museum of Art; the Museum of Modern Art; the National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.; and the Art Institute of Chicago.