University of Chicago, USA
Indefinite Images: Motion Blurs in Ilse Bing’s Interwar Dance Photographs (1931)
Photographic blurs billow across Ilse Bing’s series of dancers in motion at the Moulin Rouge in Paris, taken during the tumultuous instabilities of the inter-war period. Through a consideration of the blurs that imbue Bing’s photographs with an insistent indeterminacy, this paper describes how entanglements of photography and performances of movement confront the limitations of a fundamental aspect of photography: its seemingly inherent ability to suspend transience and capture a discrete moment in time. During the 1930s, the lightweight Leica camera’s portability and mobility allowed for chance encounters and poetic wanderings through Parisian streets. While other avant-garde photographers sought to capture instantaneous snapshots of decisive moments, Bing caught images of dancers in motion through indistinct shapes that fluctuate between abstraction and representation. The photographs leave viewers with ambiguous impressions that register movements that occurred during the time of exposure. Underneath the cabaret’s harsh stage lights, a whirling dancer appears to stand on a single stable leg amid a flurry of movements, evoking the revolving twirls of a spinning top; starkly defined lines and exhausted bodies emerge amongst undulating dresses and fluid forms, caught in simultaneous performances of the can-can’s signature high kicks; a transient figure’s right leg extends out from a hoisted ruffled skirt, coalescing into a vague expanse (fig. 1-4). Instead of privileging photographic stillness and stability, the series embraces the temporal density of dynamic movements. While photographic blurs were originally seen as failures of accurate inscription, Bing’s blurs invoke the potentials of indeterminacy and temporal densities. The dancers emerge suspended in embodied experiences of time and movement that are continuous, unfolding and overwhelming, embracing the durations of movement and perception as processes of becoming. During a moment when emerging technologies were increasingly changing perception and supplementing human vision with precision and focus, Bing’s photographs espouse instability and ambiguity rather than sharp contours and instantly decipherable stable forms.