The Mistress of the Darkroom – Lillian Bassman

Lillian Bassman (American, June 15, 1917–February 13, 2012) was a photographer, art director, graphic designer and painter best known for her work in fashion photography. She is considered to be one of the most important fashion photographers of the 20th century.

In the 1940’s working as a graphic designer she was ‘discovered’ for her visual talent by Photographer Richard Avedon and encouraged towards a career in photography.

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Her sophisticated style evolved and was bold, moody and elegantly expressed in fashion photography in Harper’s Bazzaar from the late 1940s to the early 1960s’. Her romantic images revolutionized fashion photography and her talent was highly sought after. 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’.

Lillian Bassman It's a Cinch Carmen, New York, Harper's Bazaar,1951
Lillian Bassman
It’s a Cinch Carmen, New York, Harper’s Bazaar,1951

Bassman told The New York Times in a 1997 interview that she wanted to “take the hardness out of the photography” in order to make it less literal, which she accomplished using darkroom techniques such as bleaching, dodging and burning, and selective focus.

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Over the ensuing 25 years, Bassman shot a wide variety of consumer ads–“everything that could be photographed,” she told The New York Times–but especially glamorous models for lingerie advertising. She frequently shot fashion spreads for Harper’s Bazaar as well.

In the 1970s, Bassman was discourage with the changing fashion industry and high-maintenance models, “I got sick of them,” she told The Times in 2009. “They were becoming superstars. They were not my kind of models. They were dictating rather than taking direction.” Disappointed with the profession she abruptly closed her studio, abandoned photography – destroyed her commercial negatives and dumped the editorial ones in binliners in a nook of her home. Instead, for private satisfaction, she photographed semi-abstracts.

 

Lillian Bassman fashion photography

For years her famous dramatic images stayed dormant. And then in the early 1990’s a friend of hers discovered her long lost negatives and encouraged her to pursue photography again. With the passage of years she was ready to redefine her photography work.

Portrait of Lillian Bassman in New York City 2011 by Photographer Michael Somoroff

At 87 years old her interest in darkroom techniques transferred into a fascination for Photoshop and she embraced the digital and began creating interesting effects and variations of images she had captured years ago. Her reinterpretations, as she called them, found a new generation of admirers.

These reinterpretations were so admired that she returned to photograph the Paris collections for the New York Times magazine in 1996, and worked for Vogue until 2004. She had exhibitions across Europe and in the US. Books of her “painting with light” were published in 1997 (Lillian Bassman), 2009 (Lillian Bassman: Women) and this year (Lillian Bassman: Lingerie).

Lillian Bassman who passed away last year in February at age 94, is truly an inspirational artist. In an era where women were not recognized in the arts and design, she was. And as an 87-year old woman she embraced digital, learned technical skills and revitalized her work in a new way.

Lillian Bassman and Husband Paul Himmel
Lillian Bassman and Husband Paul Himmel

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Lillian Bassman 2

The Mold of the Princess- Everything Black and Lacy, model unknown, lingerie by Lily of France, Harper’s Bazaar, 1954
The Mold of the Princess- Everything Black and Lacy,
model unknown, lingerie by Lily of France,
Harper’s Bazaar, 1954

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