Who was 'the queen of the Leica'? We discover the work of one of the references of modern photography

No talent emerges without an apparent cause.

Oliver Thansan
Oliver Thansan
15 March 2023 Wednesday 22:44
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Who was 'the queen of the Leica'? We discover the work of one of the references of modern photography

No talent emerges without an apparent cause. And in the case of Ilse Bing (Frankfurt, 1899-New York, 1998), the trigger could have been the master of impressionism, Vincent van Gogh. It was upon discovering her work on a study trip to Switzerland that the future queen of the Leica decided to throw herself into her passion: photography. In 1929, she dropped out of college to reinvent herself. Thus, the young Ilse, who studied Mathematics and Physics, and was studying Art History, would say goodbye to her destiny that she surely awaited her as a middle-class Jewish woman. Since then she has not stopped trying to capture her life with a different and bold look.

His would be a brilliant career, developed over three decades, as can be seen in the exhibition presented by the KBr center in Barcelona. After passing through the Madrid headquarters of Fundación MAPFRE, the exhibition presents two novelties: four Bing photographs from the collections of the Musée Carnavalet in Paris and the screening of the film Drei Fotografinnen: Ilse Bing, an interview of incalculable value documentary made to the artist in 1993 —five years before her death— under the direction of Antonia Lerch.

Ilse Bing became a photographer and dedicated herself to photojournalism when it was not easy to find women practicing this profession. “She was part of a generation of female photographers who achieved visibility that was hitherto unheard of,” says Juan Vicente Aliaga, curator of the exhibition. “For Bing, as for many of his contemporaries —Germaine Krull, Florence Henri, Laure Albin-Guillot, Madame d'Ora, Berenice Abbott, Nora Dumas or Gisèle Freund—, the camera became an essential tool for self-determination and a way to confirm their own identity”, affirms the expert.

The settings in which the German photographer, self-taught since she was fourteen, lived were Frankfurt before the thirties, Paris of that decade and post-war New York, where she experienced above all her condition as an exile. All of them are reflected in the Fundación MAPFRE exhibition, made up of nearly two hundred photographs and which proposes a chronological and thematic journey through Bing's career through ten sections.

Fascinated by inanimate objects, still lifes are a constant in her work, as is her admiration for dance and its context, architecture, the bustle of the street, daily life, fashion, portraits, self-portraits and the landscape. Full of contrasts, as Aliaga points out, "Bing's work cannot be ascribed to any of the movements or tendencies from which the artist drew". "I felt that the camera grew like an extension of my eyes and moved with me," the artist would say.

With an audacity that always accompanied him, everything aroused his curiosity. Her gaze sought unexpected angles, turned up or down, sometimes meeting elements that went unnoticed. Not for her. His was not an orthodox job or easy to frame. “We are facing a very singular look and conception of photography in which modernity and formal innovation go hand in hand with a humanist spirit in which a social conscience nests”, Aliaga qualifies.

The theories of the revolutionary Bauhaus school during the Weimar Republic had a great impact on his work. László Moholy-Nagy, one of the professors at that institution, had promoted the union of architecture and photography, as well as the independence of the medium from painting. The possibilities of the Bauhaus's Das Neue Sehen (the New Vision) could be endless. Ilse Bing took advantage of them by applying some of them to her work: abstraction, close-ups, high angle shots, low angle shots, photomontages or overprints.

In 1930 Bing settled in Paris. The city was then a hotbed of artistic and intellectual trends where some of the key movements for the development of the avant-garde sprang up. Among them, one of the ones that most influenced the artist was the surrealism of Man Ray, whose echoes can be seen in the images she took of different objects for fashion magazines. In these photographs there is fetishism and strange framings that she made when capturing chairs, streets or public spaces.

While making images that tended towards abstraction, Bing was fascinated by the dynamism and movement of changing reality. This is demonstrated in the snapshots that he took in the Moulin Rouge in Paris and its surroundings, and in the investigations that he did around dance. He captured the whirling dynamism of the ballerinas in their skirts, but also the expressiveness of bodies in full motion, jumping into the air or doing a split.

Ilse Bing was described as the queen of the Leica by artists such as Man Ray, Brassaï and Cartier-Bresson and became a benchmark for modern French photography. In 1941, before the advance of Nazism, the author went into exile in New York with her husband, the pianist Konrad Wolff, unable to take much of her work with them. At this stage, she would experience difficult times, and that restlessness is shown in her photographs. Nothing to do with the snapshots she obtained on her first visit to the mecca of skyscrapers, when she was invited in 1936 to exhibit her work.

At the age of sixty, she stopped working as a photographer and focused her creativity on illustrations and collages, as well as writing poems. For her, the task of any artist should involve revealing something new or showing something familiar in a new light. Repeating herself as a photographer was worthless. The artist herself died in New York in 1998 at the age of ninety-nine. She had already given art all that she was capable of without disappointing her talent.