The Creative Force of Lillian Bassman
Lillian Bassman’s innovative photographic style and ambitious technique, borne out of her training in the graphic arts, ensured that her work was highly sought after by fashion editors of the mid-century.
Bassman’s images of the model Barbara Mullen for Harper’s Bazaar are amongst the artist’s most recognisable photographs, characteristic of her pioneering style of fashion photography. Mullen typified ‘the new woman’ of the 1950s with her elongated torso, long neck and small head, which were the essence of the belle-laide model. In the present photograph Mullen’s proportions are exaggerated both by the cut of her dress and Bassman’s darkroom manipulation, which sees Mullen’s distinctive silhouette thrown into high contrast against the mirrored backdrop.
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.
First and foremost a fashion illustrator, Bassman was apprenticed to Alexey Brodovitch at Harper’s Bazaar, becoming 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 and in the process patronising the next generation of cultural innovators. 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.