Ilse Bing, « Selbstporträt mit Leica » , 1931, Privatsammlung Paris © Estate of Ilse Bing


Ilse Bing, who decided to take up the profession of photographer in 1929, portrayed herself in 1931 in the traditional style of an occupational portrait. As a former student of art history, Ilse Bing was undoubtedly familiar both with the famous “mirror paintings” of van Eyck, Parmiganino and Velazquéz and with the genre of the “self-portrait of the artist in his studio”. In this self-portrait, the tripod and camera have replaced the painter’s palette and easel. The photographer has mounted her Leica on a table tripod and is looking across the top of the camera into the mirror so as not to lose sight of herself behind the viewfinder, obviously not wishing to view this self-portrait with camera through the camera itself. Unlike Germaine Krull – and, later, Andreas Feininger – Bing rejected the absolute identification of the eye and/or entire person of the photographer with the camera lens. Her somewhat aloof attitude towards the Constructivist ideal of the artist-engineer was altogether in keeping with her work as a photojournalist which was on the whole more akin to Kertész than to Moholy-Nagy and conveyed rather a romantically poetical than a Constructivist view of the world.

By integrating into her full-face mirror image a second image in profile, Ilse Bing creates a complex interplay of lines and angles of vision. Not only does she herself appear both as the subject and as the object of the work – as the viewer and the viewed – in two different perspectives, but she also guides the viewer’s gaze in a peculiarly circular manner, making the viewer the mirror, as it were, of her own self. Ever since Cubism, polyperspectivity has been part and parcel of the repertoire of modernism. In merging the full-face and profile images of herself, Ilse Bing indeed demonstrates the height of photographic modernism. The production of multiple portraits with the aid of mirrors had been the favourite pastime of amateur photographers since the turn of the century, the technique having been exhaustively described in many manuals on leisure and recreational photography. As an example of the use of this mirror technique in art, Marcel Duchamp’s quintuple self-portrait of 1917 has achieved a certain degree of fame. Bing’s “Self-portrait with Leica”, however, is more than just a “jeu de miroirs”, for the second, profile image also reveals another side to this woman photographer’s personality. The paradigmatic change in the modern photographic aesthetic of the 1920s, a change characterized by the rejection of the traditional principles of painting (Pictorialism) in favour of the scientific ideal of extended perception (Constructivism), was no isolated photo-historical phenomenon. It was bound up with a general utopian ideology which saw its revolutionary strength for the creation of a new human society not in any political struggle but rather in technology. It was not until this ideology finally exercised its influence that the photographic lens gained primacy over the human eye. “The hoped-for change in the world will […] come: not through politics – but through technology; not through a revolutionary, but through an inventor,” announced Count Coudenhove-Kalergi, a cultural philosopher and visionary, in his book “Practical Idealism. Aristocracy-Technology-Pacifism” in 1925. The same view was expressed by Moholy-Nagy in “Painting Photography Film” in the same year: “The engineer has the machine in his hands,” he writes, “satisfying immediate needs. But basically much more: he is the initiator of the new stratum of society, the paver of the way for the future”. It was against this background that for many a theorist the photographer was the very embodiment of the Constructivist ideal of the artist-engineer.