Lillian Bassman

Lillian Bassman was an influential American photographer and painter during the 20th century. She excelled in fashion photography for most of her life, though she had originally started her career in painting. Eventually she went on to become a graphic designer and art director. Bassman niche is that her style of art is immediately recognizable by it’s high black and white contrast. She manipulated the geometric placement, camera angles, and graininess in order to create a specific look to her work. Bassman’s style focuses on societal images of women, from models in the 50’s and 60’s to contemporary.

Bassman was born on June 15th 1917 in Brooklyn, New York to two jewish parents who immigrated from the Ukraine, which was still located in Russia at the time. Her parents gave Bassman a great amount of freedom, which led to her moving in with her boyfriend, Paul Himmel, at fifteen. Bassman and her future husband first met at Coney Island when they were only 6 and 9, and reunited 7 years later. They later got married three years after moving in together, where they remained married for 73 years until he died in 2009. Bassman and Himmel both shared a love of the arts, specifically photography.

Lillian Bassman and her husband, Paul Himmel.

Bassman went to school in Manhattan at the Textile High School studying fashion design, where she met Alexey Brodovitch, who later would impact her life greatly. She graduated in 1933, modeling for the Works Progress Admisistration’s Federal Art Project while taking courses at the Pratt Institute for fashion illustration. She later showed Brodovitch her work, where he offered her a position to work under him as an assistant, even accepting her into his Design Laboratory at the New School for Social Research. At the time, Brodovitch was an art director at Harper’s Bazaar,, which helped Bassman jump start her career. She changed her focus from fashion illustration to graphic design. Bassman was Brodovitch’s muse, where she learned more about fashion photography and magazine editing.

Harper’s Bazaar created a magazine spin-off called Junior Bazaar in 1945. Bassman was asked to be the art director for this magazine that was targeted for teenage girls. From here, she began to experiment visually on her photography, a trait she shared with Brodovitch. A way she experimented was by “floating” the images. Bassman also encouraged other photographers who later went on to become famous, such as Richard Avedon, Robert Frank and Louis Faurer. This encouraged Bassman to focus more on her photography.

It was at Harper’s Bazaar where she developed an intrigue in the darkroom, spending hours developing image by George Hoyningen-Huene, a renowned fashion photographer at the time. She then played with these images, manipulating the tone with bleach and also by using tissues and gauze, bringing specific areas into focus. In a quote from The New York Times from an interview she told B&W Magazine, she stated, “I was interested in developing a method of printing on my own, even before I took photographs . . . I wanted everything soft edges and cropped.” She wanted to be “creating a new kind of vision from what the camera saw.” This was a method of her self-educating herself after being lent a studio and an assistant from Avedon. Shortly after, Bassman was able to get an account with a lingerie company. In May 1948, Junior Bazaar ended its four yer run with one final issue: a portfolio titled “Happily Ever After” consisting of 7 pages, depicting wedding themed photographs.

Bassman became intrigued with photographing every subject that she could. Her sense of wonder and exploration led her to quickly become a world renowned designer. The popularity of Bassman grew tremendously following her portraits of beautiful models that had highly sought after features. They were thin and elegant as they pose for the magazine. The New York Times stated, “Her lingerie works in particular brought lightness and glamour to an arena previously known for heavy, middle-aged women posing in industrial-strength corsets.”

When the 60’s era began, Bassman had a change of direction and vision. Suddenly, the 60’s took a stylistic turn, and Bassman was not happy with the change. She grew tired of the models she once adored, including Barbara Mullen, Suzy Parker and Dovima. The decade did not appeal to her, and her style no longer appealed to fashion directors. Bassman became increasingly discouraged by the photographic profession, causing her to destroy almost all of her commercial negatives. She left these trash bags filled with editorials in a corner of her home in Manhattan.

She created purpose for herself by photographing semi-abstracts, such as every day household items, something she’d always been fascinated with. She continued to experiment with new technology, such as photoshop and That was, until the 1990’s, when a visit to her home from Martin Harrison found the decades old negatives. As a fashion curator himself, he encouraged her to take a look at them with a new perspective. This lead Bassman to reprint them and rediscover her old work. She took on her own renditions, her own choices, when using some of her techniques to create new art. She revisited some techniques she had used in her early life, resulting in enigmatic and abstract visuals. She even discovered digital technology such as photoshop that she used for image manipulation. She embraced the new technologies in order to give her life to her work. From this point on, her career was revived and flourished. There was higher interest in her work during this time, which led to gallery shows and exhibitions across the globe. She even was able to photograph for the New York Times for the Paris collections. She also worked for Vogue until 2004.

In her life, Lillian Bassman had 2 children, Eric, who went on to become editor in chief of Abrams Books, and Lizzie, who became a photographer. Bassman died in her home in Manhattan, New York on February 13th 2012. Bassman’s worked are still admired today, even being featured in New York at the Fashion Institute of Technology and in Boston at the Museum of Fine Arts.

Bibliography

Grimes, William. “Lillian Bassman, Fashion and Fine-Art Photographer, Dies at 94.” The New York Times, The New York Times, 13 Feb. 2012, www.nytimes.com/2012/02/14/arts/design/lillian-bassman-fashion-and-fine-art-photographer-dies-at-94.html.

“Lillian Bassman.” Artnet, www.artnet.com/artists/lillian-bassman/.

“Lillian Bassman.” Peter Fetterman, www.peterfetterman.com/artists/lillian-bassman.

Terri Maxfield Lipp. “Lillian Bassman.” Terri Maxfield Lipp, 15 June 2016, tmlarts.com/lillian-bassman/.