Lisa Robinson's weekly History of Photography Column
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History of Photography: Lillian Bassman, Fashion & Commercial Photographer

I’m filling in for Lisa Robinson’s History of Photography column this week. I’m jumping forward in time to highlight groundbreaking work in fashion photography by Lillian Bassman.

She was born in Brooklyn, New York on June 15, 1917, a hundred years ago. She was an independent, unconventional woman with an eclectic background living a bohemian lifestyle. She worked as a textile designer, became a fashion illustrator then moved on to be an assistant to the legendary art director of Harper’s Bazaar magazine.


Solarization in the darkroom resulted in the Mid 1960's print "Spider Legs"
Lillian used solarization to make this photograph

Lillian worked in Harper’s darkroom in her spare time. She “was interested in developing a method of printing on my own, even before I took photographs… I wanted everything soft edges and cropped.” She went on to say in her interview with B&W magazine in 1994 “[I was] creating a new kind of vision from what the camera saw.” She would use tissue paper with holes in them over the printing paper as well as blowing smoke from her cigarette between the enlarger and the paper to soften the photograph as it was being printed. Often she would bleach her prints using potassium ferrocyanide to lighten highlights or even make them completely white. Part of her style was how she imagined her photographs would be finished in the darkroom. One technique she used was “solarization.” An example of this technique is shown in her mid-1960’s print “Spider Legs.”

Richard Avedon lent Bassman his studio complete with assistant while he was photographing fashion collections in Paris in 1947. She worked on learning photography on her own.

Soon, she was hired by a lingerie company. Her work portrayed slender, willowy models for advertising lingerie, fabrics, and cosmetics. The flowing simplicity of her photographs of gamine models made her a very desirable photographer thanks to the new, glamorous aesthetic. Prior to Lillian’s vision, lingerie was advertised as heavy girdles for plus size women-of-a-certain-age.

Notice the similarity in poses between “Across the Restaurant (1949)” and “More Fashion Milage Per Dress (1956)” both appearing in Harper’s Bazaar.

There is much more to Lillian Bassman than her stunning studies of lingerie. In an interview with the New York Times in 1997, she reminisced “I had a terrific commercial life. I did everything that could be photographed: children, food, liquor, cigarettes, lingerie, beauty products.”


Throughout her life, Lillian would seek ways to manipulate her photographs to make them etherial, to make them soft. When Photoshop became available, Lillian reimagined her earlier work. The following photograph was made in 1955 for lingerie maker Peter Pan. Bassman reworked it digitally.

A soft flowing background was inserted digitally for “The Line Lengthens” a Lily of France lingerie advertisement originally photographed in 1955.

Lillian Bassman-he Line Lengthens 1955 lingerie by Lily of France

Lillian would do what many would consider crazy as she made digital prints. For instance, she would switch the inks around in her printer just to see what would appear. “Why not try anything?” was her thinking.

The next photo is her last one. It was made in 2012. It’s titled “Betty Beihn: Nude I.”

Photographs are courtesy of the Staley-Wise Gallery in New York City. Staley-Wise is a favorite place for me to visit when I go to New York. Their exhibitions are beautifully presented. It is such a gift to be able to see prints made by or under the supervision of the photographers they show.

Lillian Bassman’s obituary New York Times, Feb. 13, 2012

Lillian’s Secret slideshow from Vanity Fair

Click to read more columns about The History of Photography.

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