Fine Art

The Female Gaze: Masterworks of French Photography

Vintage French photography contains several anomalies. Many renowned “French” photographers were originally from Germany, Hungary, Austria, and the United States. In the cafés of Montparnasse one could hear Yiddish, German, Italian, and Spanish spoken as freely as French. More important, many of the pioneers of the medium were women, who not only influenced their male peers but had a major impact on the artists and writers of their era.  These are the game-changers who make the photographic event of the season, Live and Life Will Give You Pictures: Masterworks of French Photography 1890-1950, now at the Barnes Foundation in Philadelphia.

Drawn from the collection of New York physicist Michael Mattis and his wife, Judy Hochberg, these 170 masterworks represent the largest exhibition ever mounted by the collection and the first photography show ever held at the Barnes.  The reasoning behind the show is obvious to anyone familiar with the Barnes’s permanent collection of French Impressionist paintings, including the largest collection of Renoirs in the world. These Masterworks of French Photography seem to be holding a lively conversation with the museum’s impressionist, post-impressionist, and modern paintings. One that literally flings open the doors of artists’ studios and provides an intimate view into the lives of Degas, Picasso, Matisse, and Braque. As well as glimpses of Camus, Sartre and de Beauvoir.

Organized around themes of modernity, the exhibition shows Paris transformed by industrialization as gaslight yields to electricity, horse-drawn carriages to motorcars. and corsets to the free-wheeling eroticism of the 1930s.  We also see both sides of Parisian allure, the glamour of couture contrasted with brothels and dance halls. Several of the photographers featured in the exhibition made a habit of documenting both, such as German-born Ilse Bing, who left medical school in 1930 to study photography in Paris. Hired by Vogue editor Carmel Snow to photograph Schiaparelli fashion and perfume ads, Bing also aimed her lens at the streets.  There she captured beggars, soup kitchens, men reading Yiddish theater posters, and, most notably, Cancan dancers at the Moulin Rouge.

It was her street photography that inspired Cartier-Bresson to dub Bing “Queen of Leica.” At the time, most photographers were still using larger, bulkier cameras. The smaller, hand-held Leica gave Bing, and later Cartier-Bresson, the ability to capture the spontaneity of street life. One of the strongest photos in the exhibition is Bing’s Self-Portrait with Leica, 1931 (featured above), a mirrored image that foreshadows Man Ray’s surrealism.  It’s no coincidence that the exhibition features 30 photographs by Bing. She is right up there with Cartier-Bresson, Brassai or Atget when it comes to capturing Paris between the First and Second World Wars.

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