The innovative photographic style and ambitious technique of Lillian Bassman (1917-2012) was borne out of a training in the graphic arts. The artist’s pioneering darkroom experimentation led to a hallmark high-contrast style which ensured her work was decidedly sought after by fashion editors of the mid-century.
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Lillian Bassman was born on 15th June 1917 in Brooklyn, New York following her parents move to the United States from the Ukraine, then part of Russia, in 1905. Encouraging their daughter towards independence and creativity, Bassman went on to study at the Textiles High School in Manhattan, graduating in 1933. She later attended night classes at the Pratt Institute studying fashion illustration.
Bassman’s career took off when she was apprenticed to Alexey Brodovitch at Harper’s Bazaar in the early 1940s. Bassman became art director of Junior Bazaar by 1945. In her role at the magazine, Bassman regularly hired the young photographers Richard Avedon, Arnold Newman and Robert Frank, giving them their first opportunity to work in fashion. Bassman’s images of the model Barbara Mullen for Harper’s Bazaar, published from 1950 to 1965, are amongst the artist’s most recognised work, characteristic of her pioneering style of fashion photography, in which she favoured distinctive, high-contrast silhouettes.
Bassman’s success lay in her ability to equate reality with fantasy. She frequently experimented with gauze and tissue in the dark room, creating images that showcased the object of intended desire – be it a Dior dress or a piece of elaborate lingerie – as well as compositions that were rich in drama and atmosphere. Full of sensuality and timeless glamour, Bassman’s imagery sought to add mystery and elegance to the female form and its adornments. It was a move that saw her editorial work develop into advertising campaigns for major brands including Chanel and Balenciaga.
By the 1970s, however, styles had begun to change and Bassman sought to move on from commercial fashion photography, which she felt had lapsed in its capacity for beauty and style, and its appreciation of form. Concentrating instead on fine art work, Bassman destroyed forty years of what she felt to be worthless negatives. A forgotten bag filled with hundreds of prints and negatives was discovered over 20 years later, and Bassman’s reputation was reassessed in the 1990s to critical acclaim. The artist later worked with digital technology – including Photoshop for image manipulation – and abstract colour photography into her 90s.
Exhibitions and Awards
Bassman’s work has been exhibited internationally in Madrid, Paris and New York, as well as at the Rencontres de la Photographie, Arles. Her works are currently held in the collections of the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston and the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York, amongst others.
Bassman died in New York on 13th February 2012.