Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Ilse Bing, Self-Portrait in Mirrors

Ilse Bing, Self-Portrait in Mirrors, 1931

Ilse Bing (1899-1998) was a prominent avant-garde and commercial photographer.  Born in Frankfurt to a Jewish family, Bing was encouraged to explore the arts as a child, but when she first attended the University of Frankfurt she intended to study mathematics and physics. However she soon switched to Art History and bought a camera to illustrate her thesis in 1928. She taught herself photography and it quickly overtook her academic studies.  Bing moved to Paris in 1930 and became a part of the avant-garde art scene there.  She worked for Le Monde, Harper's Bazaar, and Vogue, helping to bring art photography into the realms of commercial photography and photojournalism.  She worked in a number of styles, including architectural photographyportraiture, still life, and social commentary.  Bing also experimented with perspective and capturing rapid movement.  In 1941 she moved from Paris to New York CIty with her husband to escape the war and spent the rest of her life in New York, and continued to work throughout her life.  Self-portrait with mirrors is a fascinating work.  It makes reference to an old self-portrait technique (which I have discussed before, most recently with Lawrence Alma-Tadema) whereby the painter looks in a mirror to portray themselves accurately, and the result is the appearance that the artist is gazing directly out of the painting to make eye contact with the viewer.  Photographers have many more options in taking a self-portrait, for they do not need to continuously looks at themselves and can press the shutter without being behind the camera. Yet Bing elected to use the mirror trick, and it thus becomes a commentary on the technique and the concept of self-portraits.  Like Alma-Tadema who holds is brush, Bing portrays herself holding her camera, the tool of her trade.  However, our view of her, and her gaze out at us, is obstructed by the camera; she and it become inextricably linked.  Bing also has the mirror on the left which reveals the mechanics of the process, full dispelling any pretense about how this art is created. To many viewers saturated with selfies in 2014 this setup may appear very familiar, but in 1931 it was revolutionary.  Ilse Bing recreated this famous photograph in 1986 to great effect.

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