Lillian Bassman (1917 – 2012)

Lillian Bassman, a forgotten doyenne of ethereal black-and-white fashion photography of the 60s, has died, aged 94.

In 1969, when Lillian Bassman decided to give up fashion photography, out of frustration both with the profession and also with herself, she took a familiar road oft-trod by many other world-weary artists: she destroyed most of her work, while storing many more away. Not until the early 1990s were those negatives rediscovered, reappreciated, and republished.

By this time, fashion photography was virtually unrecognizable from the one practiced by Ms. Bassman. Indeed, even in her heyday, Ms. Bassman already seemed like a photographer from another age — that of de Meyers, Munkacsis, and Steichens. Her ethereal black-and-white photographs, where fashion photography was elevated into a fine art with dark strokes and sharp angles, reveals Ms. Bassman’s lifelong fascination with angular artists ranging from Martha Graham and El Greco.

Originally a student of fabric design, and of Ms. Graham, Ms. Bassman took an unconventional route to fashion photography. She was initially an art director at Harper’s Bazaar, where she worked under the great Alexey Brodovitch, and where she was responsible for promoting careers of future photographic stars such as Richard Avedon, Robert Frank, and Louis Faurer. During her time at the magazine, she developed images for another grand name of fashion photography, George Hoyningen-Huene.

Her first photos — those of a wedding taken in Avedon’s studio — appeared in Junior Bazaar on the magazine’s last issue in May 1948. From then on, her life was that of fashion shoots, lingerie advertisement and svelte muses. When an ad agency demanded that the faces of the models be not shown, Bassman pioneered a genre that would be a reverie about the secret lives of women, as The Guardian put it. Alas, she never let men intrude that inner sanctum, sending her male assistants to coffeebreaks, as she captured the private worlds of such memorable faces of the 50s and 60s such as Barbara Mullen, Dovima, Suzy Parker, and Lisa Fonssagrives.

6 thoughts on “Lillian Bassman (1917 – 2012)

  1. She worked as a model in the Art’s Student League which I suppose give her an inside point of view from the subject. But what surprise me more was her attitude to manipulate negatives in a world previous of photoshop. She had to ask to technicians about a shoot but at the same time she was involved in the printing part to do some diffusion thing that had her touch. Harpers Bazaar with Brodovitch, Bassman, Irving Penn, Lissette Model and Richard Avedon was a beautiful part of fashion photography. Maybe you can add to the names related to Bassman the work of Sarah Moon. I see more connections between them than others photographers.

  2. it’s difficult to tell without seeing the print but it would appear that she bleached the highlights on the finished print to add punch and a sort of painterly feel, which in a world in which photographers rarely print their own work, is an extra level of creativity. She was a great.

  3. Hey There. I found your blog using msn. This is a really well written article. I’ll make sure to bookmark it and return to read more of your useful information. Thanks for the post. I will certainly return.

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