“I had a terrific commercial life, I did everything that could be photographed: children, food, liquor, cigarettes, lingerie, beauty products.” -Lillian Bassman
Lillian Bassman also was a fine art photographer later in her, simply put, amazing life.
Her studies began with fabric design at Textile High School in Chelsea. She modeled for Works Progress Administration’s (WPA) artists during the depression. She took night classes in fashion illustration at Pratt Institute. Her career started with a showing of her work to Alexy Brodovich. He gave her free tuition to the Design Laboratory at the New School for Social Research. There, she changed her focus from fashion illustration to graphic design. In 1941 she was an unpaid intern for Harper’s Bazaar magazine working for Brodovitch. Needing money she took a position as assistant to the art director at Elizabeth Arden. This caused Brodovitch to take her on as his first paid assistant, where she worked on Junior Bazaar. She treated fashion boldly as a graphic style, floating images in space.
In an interview with Print magazine in 2006, Bassman shared this:
“One week we decided that we were going to do all green vegetables, so we had the designers make all green clothing, green lipstick, green hair, green everything.”
Bassman frequently assigned work to upcoming photographers like Richard Avedon, Louis Faurer and Robert Frank. This was her entry into wanting to become a photographer.
Lillian Bassman’s photography began in the darkroom at Harper’s Bazaar. She worked during lunch printing photos by fashion photographer George Hoyningen-Hume. She would use tissues and gauze to soften edges of images forcing the view toward the subject.
“I was interested in developing a method of printing on my own, even before I took photographs,” Ms. Bassman told B&W magazine in 1994. “I wanted everything soft edges and cropped.” She was interested, she said, in “creating a new kind of vision aside from what the camera saw.”
Richard Avedon loaned Bassman his studio while he was in Paris photographing the 1947 fashion collections. She landed an account with a lingerie client where she continued her self-directed photographic education. This led to her becoming the go-to photographer for women’s undergarments. Her photographs of elegant, slender, long-necked models brought glamour to what had been middle-aged ladies wearing very restrictive almost machine-like corsets. Her models included her muse Barbara Mullen, Dovima and Suzy Parker — some of the times very best models.
Bassman became disaffected with photography as a profession. She put over a hundred of her editorial negatives into trash bags and stored them in her garage in Manhatten. It was 1969. She began to concentrate on fine art by making colorful Cibachrome prints of still life subjects. She made images of distorted male torsos and even cracks in the city streets.
Fashion becomes fine art
In the 1990’s, fashion curator Martin Harrison, also a historian found her negatives while he was staying at her home. He suggested and encouraged Bassman to take another look at what she had stashed away. She did. In the darkroom, she began by applying techniques she had discovered fifty years earlier — bleaching, softening edges, toning even blowing cigarette smoke under the enlarger’s lens during while exposing a print to add ephemeral blurs. In an interview with the New York Times she said:
“In looking at them I got a little intrigued, and I took them into the darkroom, and I started to do my own thing on them. I was able to make my own choices, other than what Brodovitch or the editors had made.”
These “reinterpretations” as she called them, earned her a brand new group of admirers. This led to a revival of her career. She had gallery shows, exhibitions and a joint retrospective with her husband, Paul Himmel who was a documentary photographer. A series of monographs of her work followed. Harrison arranged a one-woman show of her work at the Hamilton’s Gallery in London. Other exhibitions happened. One in Paris. They led to her working for the New York Times Magazine covering the haute couture collections in Paris in 1996. She worked until her last assignment in 2004 for German Vogue.
Parts of this mini-bio are from Lillian Bassman’s obituary from the New York Times.
On Photography is a weekly feature of Photofocus highlighting the life of influential photographers.