Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Ilse Bing's New York

Ilse Bing is one of the many remarkable photographers included in A Short History of Photography, an exhibition currently on view at the International Center for Photography (ICP). Born in Germany, Bing was an immigrant herself, moving to New York City from Paris in 1941. Bing was drawn to the immigrant communities on Manhattan’s Lower East Side, and many of her images capture the same stories we tell at the Tenement Museum.

Bing was an innovator of her time, and became an expert with the Leica, a revolutionary 35mm hand-held camera that enabled photographers to capture fast-moving events.  One of the photographs she took during her time in the United States, "New York. El and Straw Hat", is included in the exhibition at ICP. It showcases Bring’s interest in both the urban landscape and the figure.

Ilse Bing, "New York. El and Straw Hat", 1936; Image Courtesy the University of California, San Diego

During her time in New York City, Bing met the influential artist, critic and gallerist, Alfred Stieglitz.  Stieglitz advocated for a more abstract style of photography, and his influence is clear in some of Bing's images. In "New York. El and Straw Hat", Bing interpreted the city skyline as graphic elements, highlighting the contrast between the upright pillars of the sky scrapers and the long horizontality of the elevated subway track. She described the New York City skyline as a unique blend of natural and mechanical forms, saying, “[The skyline is] like crystals in the mountains, little things grown up.”

One can also see Bing’s interest in the social realism that predominated in American photography at that time. In "Italians Playing Cards", Bing draws on earlier images of members of Stieglitz’s circle including Edward Steichen and Paul Strand, both of whom documented the immigrant communities on New York City’s Lower East Side in the 1890s and 1910s. 

Ilse Bing, "Italians Playing Cards", 1936; Image Courtesy the Victoria and Albert Museum

Photographs like Bing’s – in addition to being beautiful – are excellent tools for Tenement Museum researchers and curators as they work to recreate the tenement apartments at 97 Orchard Street. Everything from the type of crates these gentlemen are sitting on to the cut of their jackets are clues for material culture historians.

If you are interested in New York City history or photography, check out "A Short History of Photography" at the ICP. It's a wealth of notable and beautiful images!

-- Posted by Hilary Whitham

For more information on Ilse Bing, check out the Victoria and Albert Museum’s website:

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