Ilse Bing working methods
Like many photographers of the 1930s, Ilse Bing was self-taught in terms of technique and composition. Photography attracted her as a new visual language appropriate to the modern age and she rapidly developed an idiosyncratic style and a high degree of technical expertise.
Ilse Bing was one of the first photographers to adopt the revolutionary small-format Leica camera, and in Paris in the early 1930s she was one of the few to make exclusive use of it. Her photographs from this period show a range of influences and interests - from modernist 'New Photography', to German 'New Objectivity', Surrealism, photojournalism, the work of Alfred Stieglitz and American social realism. Bing's ability to 'sample' from the different photographic styles and approaches of the era, and yet to maintain a signature style, is one of the most intriguing things about her work.
It was Bing's use of the Leica to produce images that 'revived photographic dynamism' that led the photographer and critic Emmanuel Sougez (who was famous for using a large plate camera) to dub her the 'Queen of the Leica' in his review of the 29th Salon International d'art photographique of 1934. Bing achieved a certain dynamism in her work through the use of cropped compositions, quirky angles and aerial views - all visual tropes of the New Photography movement. However, Sougez particularly admired Bing's photographs of dancers, where movement and blurring were captured on a sensitive night film in a manner which is particular to her work. These photographs have a graininess to them, possibly the result of enlarging details from a small-format Leica negative. This quality was much admired by Sougez, who claimed that Bing was able to express the 'enchantment with which reality is enveloped'.
In America however, the technique of enlarging from a smaller negative was met with some disapproval. In a letter from her New York gallerist Julien Levy, Bing was advised not to enlarge from the negative. This suggests that American audiences (and clients) were influenced by Alfred Stieglitz, who insisted that prints should not be enlarged or cropped from the original negative. We can only speculate whether Bing and Stieglitz discussed their technical differences when they met during Bing's trip to New York in 1936.
Sougez also admired Bing's use of the technique of solarisation, where the negative is exposed during processing to create a reversed-out effect. Solarisation is said to have been invented as an artistic technique by Man Ray and Lee Miller around 1930. Bing claimed to have come across it 'independently' and started to use it in her work from 1934 to evoke what she called the 'spirit of surrealism', often in photographs of the city at night.
The Ilse Bing's bequest to the V&A contains both vintage prints from the 1930s and 40s and later prints made in the 1980s and '90s. It is clear from the vintage prints - in particular those from the 1940s - that Bing was a very accomplished printer who managed to achieve a subtle tonal range and depth of tone. For her later works she used a larger format Rolleiflex camera and we see a shift away from the earlier graininess to a crisper focus in the prints, perhaps more desirable in her work as a portrait photographer.
By contrast, the prints from the 1980s and 1990s, printed on 10 x 8" paper, were not made by Bing (although they are all signed by her) and these lack some of the depth of tone of the vintage prints.