Cleveland Museum of Art celebrates mid-century modern photography by Ilse Bing, ‘Queen of the Leica’

Sybil T. Mann

CLEVELAND, Ohio — Ilse Bing was an early adopter par excellence. Born into a comfortable middle-class Jewish family in Frankfurt, Germany in 1899, she dropped her plans for a PhD. in art history and decided to become an artist after seeing a 1929 exhibition on the paintings of Vincent van Gogh.

But instead of taking up a brush, Bing bought a Leica — a sophisticated and revolutionary new German-made camera that took pictures with 36-exposure rolls of 35-millimeter film, originally developed for motion pictures.

Within a year, Bing relocated to Paris, where she developed a reputation as the “Queen of the Leica,‘’ a sobriquet that doubles as the title of a delightful and poignant exhibition at the Cleveland Museum of Art.

With 50 prints, many of them vintage enlargements from the 1930s, the exhibition traces Bing’s career as a photographer of nightlife, street scenes and fashion in Paris and New York.

Roughly half of the works in the show are from the massive collection of more than 1,200 photographs donated to the museum over the past decade by ABC news anchor George Stephanopoulos, who grew up in Cleveland and whose donations have also formed the backbone of several other recent exhibitions.

(Stephanopoulos has turned down several requests for an interview about his largesse).

The Bing show is filled with a delirious sense of discovery and possibility that radiates from her use of the Leica, a camera soon taken up by other giants of 20th century photography including Henri Cartier-Bresson, Andre Kertesz and Robert Capa.

The museum’s exhibition, organized by Barbara Tannenbaum, curator of photography, reasserts the widely held view that Bing was “the first professional photographer to wholeheartedly adopt the Leica.‘’

The point may be debatable. Kertesz is known to have taken one of his most famous photos with a Leica in 1928. But no matter: As the museum’s show demonstrates, Bing fully exploited the potential of the new photographic technology.

Unlike film-sheet cameras that required a tripod and had to be reloaded after every picture, the small, elegant Leica could take multiple exposures, and used “faster” film and lenses with wider apertures.

According to the Smithsonian Institution, first generation Leicas were equipped with shutter speeds from 1/20th of a second to 1/500th of a second, affording a then-unparalleled level of photographic freedom and spontaneity.

The new capacities enabled indoor photography without flash, and made it possible to shoot from any angle.

An example of the Leica I, Model C — a type Bing would have used — is on view in a display case in the exhibition as a virtual work of art in itself.

Ilse Bing at Cleveland Museum of Art

A 1929 Leica of the type Ilse Bing would have used is on display in the exhibition of her photography at the Cleveland Museum of Art. The f3.5 50-millimeter Leitz Elmar lens is shown retracted into the camera body, an arrangement that made the camera compact and easy to carry in a pocket, with the lens cap on.Steven Litt, Cleveland.com

“I felt this small camera became a continuation of my eye, which moved around with me,” Bing said in a quote cited in the show.

Bing’s work, which earned her magazine assignments, portrait commissions and gallery shows, celebrated how the world looked through the lens of a 35 millimeter camera.

She took dizzying perspectives of the Eiffel Tower and streets below, turning people into ants framed by slashing diagonal cross beams of undecorated engineering.

She captured the sexy if seedy atmosphere of the Moulin Rouge, the famous Montmartre nightclub, in grainy black-and-white shots of Cancan dancers swirling their skirts to reveal lots of leg.

Ilse Bing at Cleveland Museum of Art

A 1929 Leica stands sentinel in the photography gallery at the Cleveland Museum of Art, now featuring works by Leica enthusiast Ilse Bing.Steven Litt, Cleveland.com

Her 1933 image of two women on a swing at a Paris fairground freezes Bing’s subjects in full flight, as if they had become a kind of strange, crablike hybrid creature in the air.

Bing’s fashion photos, including her images of fancy shoes, have a gently surreal quality, as does her image of a vendor’s briefcase full of miniature Eiffel Towers. In such photos, Bing’s subjects appear to float free of context, as if possessed by a secret inner life.

But the most famous photo in the show is Bing’s 1931 self-portrait with her Leica, gazing at the viewer from behind the camera on the right side of the image, while a mirror captures a profile view of the photographer on the left side of the image.

It’s a picture of a fully engaged, confident modern woman in a bobbed haircut that combines the piercing look of her eyes with the third eye of the Leica lens. The camera is Bing’s totem of power, her passport to the world.

The Bing show, on view through Oct. 10, is one of several exhibitions that the museum has extended after having closed March 14 in response to the coronavirus pandemic.

Ilse Bing at Cleveland Museum of Art

Ilse Bing’s 1935 portrait of her future father-in-law, Martin Wolff, portrays the legal scholar a year after Nazis expelled him from the University of Berlin because of his Jewish heritage. Wolff emigrated to England in 1938, where he became a fellow at Oxford University.Steven Litt, Cleveland.com

The institution reopened June 30 with mandatory health protocols, limited daily attendance of 500, and special procedures for acquiring free, timed tickets. (Details available on the museum’s website at clevelandart.org).

If the Bing exhibition documents exhilarating forces of fashion and modernity that shaped her career in Paris, it also suggests the hardships she suffered in the 1940-41 period, when she and her husband, pianist and musicologist Konrad Wolff narrowly escaped the Nazi Holocaust and relocated to New York.

Although Bing had developed contacts in New York in 1936, her career never flowered there as it had in her earlier years in Paris. It is with a touch of irony, then, that Bing portrayed herself in a collage as a cover subject in Life magazine, an honor never accorded her in reality.

As Tannenbaum notes, Bing gave up photography in 1959 at age 60, saying, “I had nothing more to say. . . . I did not want to repeat myself.”

Thanks to a resurgence of interest in 1930s photography and the work of early women photographers, Bing’s reputation enjoyed a revival in the 1970s and ’80s.

“She loved it; she loved the attention,‘’ said photographer Abe Frajndlich, also a native of Frankfurt, who emigrated to Cleveland in 1956 when he was 10.

In 1986, when he was based in New York, the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung magazine asked Frajndlich to shoot a cover story of Bing. It was the beginning of a friendship that lasted until Bing died in 1998, just shy of her 99th birthday.

Ilse Bing at Cleveland Museum of Art

A 1942 photogram by Ilse Big contrasts the photographer’s hand and cutout shapes with the texture of grass.Steven Litt, Cleveland.com

Frajndlich said he would bring flowers to Bing, talk to her and ask her to pose. Among other things, he persuaded Bing to allow him to recreate her famous 1931 self-portrait, 55 years after the fact.

“She was a performer,‘’ he said. “You can see that in the way she poses for the camera. She’s not a normal 86-year-old woman. She’s got a great ego and sense of herself. She’s a performer.”

At the time, Bing worked as a dog groomer based in the generously scaled, rent-controlled apartment she shared with her husband on Riverside Drive on the Upper West Side in Manhattan.

Frajndlich recalled that she rode a motorcycle to visit clients, and, after an accident, switched to a bicycle. She always carried her own dog with her in a rear basket.

Bing “was not a complainer,‘’ he said. “She was a survivor.”

The two worked out a deal in which Frajndlich agreed to make fresh prints from Bing’s 1930s negatives, if she allowed him to keep one print for every five he provided her.

Nine of those images are part of the Cleveland show, giving it the warmth and intimacy of a personal tribute to an extraordinary artist, and an extraordinary person.

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