About the Photographer
American, 1917 - 2012
A seminal figure in the history of fashion photography, Lillian Bassman rose to prominence in the decades after World War II with a style that spanned the divide between art and fashion. Avidly experimental, Bassman made black and white photographs with unusual compositions, blurred outlines, and dark silhouettes. In some instances she used layers of tissue or gauze to create a diffused effect, or she transformed her images with bleaching and toning techniques in the darkroom. Through these approaches she introduced a new aesthetic into fashion photography—sensuous and feminine, but mysterious, moody and dreamlike. In many instances the photographs resemble impressionistic sketches in black ink or charcoal.
In the early 1940s Bassman served as an apprentice to Alexey Brodovitch at Harper's Bazaar. In 1946 she was appointed an art director at Junior Bazaar, where she subsequently worked with photographers like Richard Avedon, Robert Frank, Arnold Newman, and her husband, Paul Himmel. Bassman began to use her own photographs in the magazine, and by the end of the 1940s she had given up her position at the magazine to concentrate on photography full-time. Although she had established a name for herself, after decades of trying to reconcile her artistic interests with commercial demands she closed her studio in the 1970s and abandoned most of her negatives.
In 1991 painter Helen Frankenthaler and writer Martin Harrison each discovered hundreds of Bassman's lost negatives and returned them to the artist, who set about reprinting them. In the process, Bassman decided to reinterpret her images from the 1940s and 1950s, often giving the images a dramatically different form. Returning from relative obscurity, Bassman has resumed an active role in the field of fashion photography. Since the mid-1990s she has garnered spreads in publications such as the New York Times Magazine and exhibitions of her photographs in museums and galleries, including the Fashion Institute of Technology, New York; Peter Fetterman Gallery, Los Angeles; and the Piazza Sempione, Milan. An eponymous monograph of her photographs was published by Bulfinch Press in 1997.