New York

Ilse Bing

Houk Friedman

Ilse Bing was not born with a camera in her hands. She was not a childhood devotee, like Jacques-Henri Lartigue. She enrolled at the University of Frankfurt to study mathematics, but eventually switched to art history. Bing only seriously picked up the camera in the late ’20s, when she needed research photographs for her dissertation on the 18th-century architect Friedrich Gilly. Soon though, she was publishing photographs in the Frankfurter Illustrierte Zeitung, and in 1930 she moved to Paris, where she spent the next ten years achieving success as both an artist and a commercial photographer. Nevertheless, as is demonstrated by this exhibition of work predominantly from the ’30s, Bing’s academic background continued to make itself felt in her esthetic, which always tends toward the geometric and the architectural. A 1936 trip to New York, for instance, did not yield human interest pictures of the Depression but, rather, bold images of the city’s modern structures: the Empire State Building, the Chrysler Building, Rockefeller Center, the Brooklyn Bridge, and the El. Another photograph, It was so windy in the Eiffel Tower, 1931, shows a file of men and women holding onto their hats as they climb a set of windswept stairs. If you didn’t know that the mise-en-scène was the famous tower, the image might suggest some machine-age dystopia: the stairs become a conveyor belt that moves faceless figures through a thicket of spindly metal. The picture plane is dramatically tilted upward, cutting off all sense of horizon or escape. Seven people go up, but only two come down.

Whereas external structure—architecture—is at issue in the Eiffel Tower photograph, Bing’s depictions of cancan dancers problematize form in another fashion altogether. In the cancan, the dancer internalizes structure: the leg juts out, bent at the knee, comes back. juts out straight, comes back, and so on. Yet in Cancan Dancer, Moulin Rouge, 1931, the dancer’s legs become one leg, her dress shoots out, her arms disappear. The twist, then, is that the highly structured movement of the dance becomes less apparent as it is set in motion. Bing, accordingly, does not approach the subject as would Etienne Jules Marcy, as stop-action or freeze-frame shots. Instead, she discovers a sort of physics of the photograph: velocity, mass, and position relative to the camera reveal the fugitive appearance of a structure as it moves in time. The result is a blur.

Another work, Solarized Clocks at Night, 1931, hints at the reason for Bing’s sensitivity to the relations between structure and power. The photograph depicts two clocks floating luminously in the night as if in some iridescent solution. Each reads 11:05. Also visible are two streetlights and a glowing sign, reading “commerce.” At first glance, the image might look like a fairly innocuous nightscape or a simple experiment with solarization (a process that Bing discovered independently of Man Ray). But perhaps there is a deeper significance to the work: commerce. America wasn’t the only country in the midst of a depression in the ’30s, and it was economic recession that would, in part, enable the fascists to rise to power in Germany. Dachau opened in 1933, and Bing herself spent time in a concentration camp before emigrating to New York. Are the solarized clocks a herald of the eleventh hour? And was Puddle, Rue de Valois, Paris, 1932, which depicts the top of a row of buildings reflected in a puddle on the side of a street, really suggesting that the whole world was turning upside-down?

Keith Seward