Lillian Bassman: 1917 – 2012

Lillian Bassman Born on June 15, 1917 in Brooklyn, New York, Lillian Bassman was considered to be one of the most important fashion photographers of the 20th century.

Bassman studied at the Textile High School in Manhattan, NY in 1933 and became an assistant painter at the WPA (Works Progress Administration) in 1934. In the 1940s, Bassman was working as a graphic designer when photographer Richard Avedon, a friend of her and her husband (Paul Himmel), encouraged her towards a career in photography.

Bassman’s most well known photos were taken from the late 1940s to the early 1960s and most were published in Harper’s Bazaar. During this time she also worked as an art director for Junior Bazaar and later for Harper’s Bazaar. At Harper’s Bazaar , “Bassman brought a sophisticated, new aesthetic to fashion photography with her elegant, moody, and often abstract images. Her work diverged from classic fashion photography in that she did not rely on beautiful models and clothes as the sole essence of her photographs.”

“Bassman’s experimental and romantic visions revolutionized fashion photography. Vanity Fair magazine singled her out as one of photography’s “grand masters. ‘Full of mystery, sensuality, and expressionistic glamour, Bassman’s dramatic black and white photographs capture secret moments and dream memories. Her work is elegant, graceful and totally original. Bassman’s unique images achieve their effect through darkroom manipulation, specifically by blurring and bleaching areas of the photographs.’”

By the 1970s, Bassman’s interest in “pure form” photography was at odds with the changing fashion industry.  She abandoned photography and turned back to painting, closing her studio for the next two decades.  She returned to photography in the early 1990s after a friend found a bag of Bassman’s negatives in storage. Bassman, who had always had an interest in the manipulation of photographs, began altering the pictures and bleaching out backgrounds, creating  dramatic effects.

At the age of 87, Bassman discovered PhotoShop and began working in her studio “toying and reconfiguring” her photographs. “She claimed a proud proficiency with her computer. It is a skill however that does not extend to the use of e-mail or Google. ” “I’m not interested,” she said, “in any of that.” (New York Times)

Lillian Bassman died in her home on February 13, 2012. Her work has been published in “Lillian Bassman” (1997), “Lillian Bassman: Women” (2009), and more recently,  “Lillian Bassman: Lingerie,”  in March 2012.

To see more photos, visit the Lillian Bassman fan page on Facebook.

Sources: Farmani Gallery, New York Times, New York Times (obituary)

Related Books:
Lillian Bassman: Women

Lillian Bassman & Paul Himmel
The Model as Muse: Embodying Fashion