Wednesday, 15 December 2010

Bite 14: Ilse Bing - Self-Portrait with Leica, 1931

Self-Portrait with Leica, 1931
In this complex self-portrait the German photographer Ilse Bing stares down her camera, placed before a mirror, with another mirror to the side reflecting her profile. We view her action from two angles, both images within one, containing - duplicated - the photo-mechanical device used to create the picture itself.

The focus here is not so much Bing, but her tool, significantly a Leica - the camera of choice for photojournalists and documentary photographers for much of the 20th century. Sitting behind her camera she is a hunter ready to pounce, and her prey, in this instance, is her own emanation. 

The white space and curtain in the centre of the composition provides space between the reflections - one being a reflection of a reflection. Her large cuff operates as another kind of 'face', offsetting her  expression and profile. The result is that, even on prolonged viewing, one is unsure of where to look, the eye darting between the two reflections without necessarily wandering. 

"I didn't choose photography;" Bing wrote later in life, "It chose me." This can be seen in her portrait - the camera apprehending her and her image, and her letting it. It isn't so much that she isn't in control, as her being entranced and enraptured by the mystery and magic of the photographic process. The mirror here is a phenomenological object of a splitting or duplication of identity, questioning the very use of the camera in this function, while it is both utilised and depicted in the process.

Max Kosloff, The Theatre of the Face: Portrait Photography Since 1900, Phaidon, 2007.
Photography: Art Gallery of New South Wales Collection, 2007.