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.