When spoken of by critics — if ever — the German-born Ilse Bing was always grouped with her more famous male counterparts: Brassai, Henri Cartier-Bresson, Man Ray and André Kertesz. They were in the forefront, it seemed, with her tagging along, and often times considered imitative in subject matter and method.
But now, with the appearance of Ilse Bing: Photography Through the Looking Glass, issued by the inimitable Abrams publishing house, one of this country's premier art-book publishers, the photographer comes into her own. Here we have a chance to assess who influenced whom, who was, in fact, the true revolutionary — or if such things, among those blessed with remarkable talents, are simply fluid and undetectable, a matter of time, circumstance and luck.
Born into a well-off Jewish family in Frankfurt-am-Main in 1899, Bing was exposed to many different art forms, music and painting particularly, throughout her young years; and as she grew, her parents continued to encourage her intellectual pursuits. In 1920, she began studies at the University of Frankfurt, first with an interest in mathematics and physics, though soon her attention turned instead to the history of art.
In 1924, she began work on a doctorate about the 18th-century German architect Friedrich Gilly. Because she had to illustrate her thesis, she bought a camera in 1928, and started teaching herself the fundamentals of photography. A year later, she bought her first Leica, which was purposely made to take out into the streets to capture events as they were happening — and so proved a boon to the burgeoning art of photojournalism.
In that same year, while still trying to complete her doctorate, Bing began supplying images to an illustrated magazine in Frankfurt and met with almost instant success. Within a matter of months, she gave up thesis-writing and focused specifically on photo assignments. Her family was somewhat taken aback by her decision — it was quite remarkable for a woman of the period — but she forged ahead nonetheless.
She moved to Paris in the '30s, first working for the same German magazines, but soon breaking into Parisian publications. It was during this period that she also began taking extra photos while on assignment, of the things that spoke to her directly. She began exhibiting her work as well. And although people drew comparisons between her images and those of other, more well-known artists of the period, Bing always insisted that she had worked in isolation for the most part, never coming into contact with, say, Kertesz or Brassai or Man Ray.
In the early '30s, she met her future husband, the German pianist Konrad Wolff (they were married in 1937), and she made her first trip to New York, where she was feted as a celebrated artist. But when she and Wolff eventually immigrated to America once World War II started, she arrived in a different New York — one flooded with émigré photographers from Europe looking for assignments — as well as a totally different world of photojournalism. She continued quietly doing portraits, especially of children, well into the '50s, but by 1957, she decided to put her camera down for good.
Her work fell into obscurity for nearly 20 years, until the Museum of Modern Art began acquiring some of her photos. Her images began being exhibited again, especially throughout the '80s, so that by her death in 1998, she was acknowledged as a master and a great pioneer of modern photographic technique.
The publication of Ilse Bing — the book, in and of itself, is a thing of beauty, an exquisite object to contemplate — containing extensive essays by Larisa Dryansky on all phases of the artist's career, can only deepen the sense of Bing's achievements. The generous sampling of photographs shows all of her definitive stylist markings, especially in the shots taken from above her various subjects. Her dance photos are also a revelation, and her self-portraits come at you from all sorts of angles with an originality in their composition that makes them seem as if they were taken just a moment ago.