Ilse Bing: Photography through the Looking Glass

by Larisa Dryansky

This book by Larisa Dryansky reviews Ilse Bing’s life and artistic career. Dryansky contextualizes Bing’s photography by describing the socio-political conditions in which she lived as well as by providing a supplementary history of the avant-garde photographic movements contemporary with her work.

The text is structured into three parts, each dedicated to a city in which Bing lived and which influenced the development of her photography. That cities, Frankfurt, Paris and New York, frame the author’s analysis is telling of the significance of place and the built environment in Bing’s work. Dryansky insists Bing’s images in New York were affected by the seclusion she felt in New York’s foreign and impersonal urban landscape. A result of Bing’s attitude towards her surroundings, her photos were lent, among many things, a new attention to unfamiliar urban elements, like antennas, and to sharp and differentiating light qualities.

The discussion notes Bing’s time as defined by modernist ideals of art and society; the dominant photographic movement was the New Vision, headed by Bauhaus professor Laszlo Moholy-Nagy. This movement proclaimed photography as an art form in its own right and as valuable for its mechanical and objective depiction of reality from new views, including close-up, aerial, and oblique. Dryansky argues that during this time photography and architecture were perceived as mutually influencing, as aiding in each other’s development, and as contributing to a transformation in the way individuals view and experience space.

The Frankfurt chapter highlights Bing’s opportunity to photograph Dutch architect Mart Stam’s projects, namely the Hellerhof settlement and the Henry and Emma Budge retirement home, known as the BudgeHeim. The text suggests Bing’s photos of the BudgeHeim reflect the formal qualities of Stam’s architecture; Bing’s photograph of the stairway is illuminated by even sunlight that links multiple spaces and achieves visually that which Stam’s design also intended to achieve materially. Too, Bing's geometrical framing of her photographs mirrors the Constructivist influence on the architecture. The images communicate a marked sensitivity for light and spatial relationships, which reveal the effect of the zeitgeist on Bing’s photography.

Larisa Dryansky is an author and academic at the University Paris-Sorbonne.
Dryansky, Larisa. Ilse Bing: Photography Through the Looking Glass. New York: Abrams, 2006.
Review by Lindsay Mamchur
July 2019
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