Unconsciously Graceful: Lillian Bassman

“I am completely tied up with softness, fragility, and the problems of a feminine world.” – Lillian Bassman

When you think of iconic fashion photographers, chances are you think of names like Richard Avedon, Irving Penn, or, perhaps Cecil Beaton. However, a name that should not only be on your list, but somewhere very near the top, is Lillian Bassman, who, for more than 60 years defined not only fashion, but the role of a fashion photographer. Ms. Bassman, although shooting women, was living and working in a man’s world but she did not let that to hold her back. Instead, she spent her career pushing the boundaries and breaking the standards of traditional fashion photography and, in the process, created a brilliant style that was uniquely her own.

Lillian Violet Bassman was born to very bohemian parents in 1917. She and her sister were given freedom to do what they wanted as long as they ironed their uniforms and took a bath every Saturday. Other than that, they were completely independent. At the young age of six, she met nine year old Paul Himmel, the son of her mother’s boss. They quickly became close friends, which eventually turned into a romantic involvement, and, at 15, her parents allowed her to move in with him. Within a short time, they were married and ended up spending the next 73 years together, until Paul died in 2009.

They were a perfect complement to one another. They both loved the art world and would spend hours wandering museums for free entertainment. While studying to be a fashion illustrator, she enrolled in one of Alexey Brodovitch’s design classes. Brodovitch, the famed art director at Harper’s Bazaar, was impressed with her skill and encouraged her to switch to graphic design. He also invited her to be one of his assistants. Initially an unpaid position, through some strong negotiating, Ms. Bassman became his first paid female assistant. When Harper’s launched Junior Bazaar (a magazine geared towards teens) in 1945, she was promoted to co-art director and began working with photographers like Richard Avedon and Robert Frank, whose photography began to inspire her. She was finding herself in the darkroom more and more, developing and manipulating other people’s images. She began to experiment with tissue paper, gauze, and bleach during the developing and printing process, in order to manipulate and “paint” the light and shadows in. Her images took on a very abstract, illustrative look.

When Avedon left for Paris, he handed her the keys to his studio and darkroom, giving her free reign to experiment as much as she would like. This is where she not only learned to be a photographer, but also how to get exactly what she wanted out of her prints. When Junior Bazaar folded, she knew she wanted to be a photographer. She began to shoot whatever she could. It was in lingerie, however, where she began to make a name for herself. Up until this point, lingerie ads consisted of slightly overweight women with their heads cut off, concealing the identities of the models. Ms. Bassman’s style was more organic and natural; she would use the same models who were used for regular fashion, hiding their faces with shadows or gesture. There were no men allowed in her shoots, other than a single technician, who was allowed to help get things set up, but would be asked to leave when the shooting started. She got her models comfortable by asking about their lives, their husbands and boyfriends, their futures. She worked with a very intimate lens, seeing sides of the models that other photographers were not able to, a side that was extremely feminine, strong, and yet, somehow vulnerable. Soon, advertisers were clamoring for her work as she brought a lightness and glamour that was previously non-existent.

All of the hours she and Paul spent in the museums had a dramatic influence on the look of her photography. “I spent my life in the museums, studying the old masters,” she said. “Elegance goes back to the earliest paintings. Long necks. The thrust of the head in a certain position. The way the fingers work, fabrics work. It’s all part of my painting background.” Her preferred camera was a Rolleiflex, unobtrusive, therefore making it easier to communicate with the model. Her goal was to photograph women as natural and unposed as possible. She would work patiently with the model, explaining exactly what she wanted, suggesting the mood, the gesture, working very slowly and deliberately, watching for each nuance that could be made better. “It is part of the nature of a woman to be unconsciously graceful,” she said. “She has beautiful flowing movements of arms and hips. In running the carpet sweeper, putting up her hair or looking out of a window, there is grace, but it usually passes unnoticed in everyday life. I try to record that natural grace with the camera.” Ms. Bassman never really enjoyed the technical aspects of photography. Although she did eventually learn how to use the lights and read a meter, she didn’t let those boundaries limit her. She wouldn’t allow the mechanics of photography dictate what she wanted to do. She wanted to express emotion first and foremost. Other photographers and the technicians around her would often get frustrated at her attempts to go beyond the norms of the day, but once they saw the results they were amazed. Her real skill came in the darkroom where she was a true artist.

After working for more than 25 years in fashion, in 1969, Bassman decided she had had enough. She was frustrated by the direction the industry was going. The models were starting to think of themselves as more important than the photographs. “I got sick of them,” she said. “They were becoming superstars. They weren’t my kind of models. They were dictating rather than taking direction.” Then, she did something drastic. She destroyed nearly all of her work; negatives prints, everything. The only thing left were a couple of trash bags that were stuffed into a closet in her basement. For the next 20 years, she turned her attention to abstract fine art photography, shooting things like cracks in the sidewalks, fruit and vegetables, and reflections, working for herself and her own enjoyment. In the early 90s, friend and photo historian, Martin Harrison, happened to come across the trash bags of negatives and talked her into doing something with them.

She took them back into the darkroom and began experimenting with her “painting” techniques, reinterpreting her old work. “In looking at them I got a little intrigued, and I took them into the darkroom, and I started to do my own thing on them.” She would use tissue paper with a hole in it and place it over the print during exposure, or take a cigarette and blow the smoke over the prints as they were exposed to the light. She wouldn’t even let the assistants clean the smoke buildup on the enlarger lenses, saying it would help create an iridescence in the prints. Harrison arranged a show of this reinterpreted work and the fashion world once again paid attention. She was hired to shoot a campaign by Neiman Marcus, and then the New York Times Magazine. She was 80 years old and her career had come full circle.

Lillian Bassman was constantly experimenting and, in her later years, embraced all of the new digital tools; cameras, software, and even printers. She loved using Photoshop, saying it was just a simple tool upgrade, “the palette has changed, the end result is the same.” When printing, she would mix the ink cartridges together to get the color she wanted. She was still able to get the look she wanted; all of this change just made her job easier. She was able to work right up until the end of her life in 2012 at the age of 94, having not just one, but two separate careers in photography. She reinvented herself and not only adapted to the changes in the world around her, but welcomed them. She paved the way for photographers like Ellen von Unwerth and Melissa Rodwell, stayed true to her creative convictions and, over the course of her career, revolutionized the world of fashion photography.

View images by Lillian Bassman on Pinterest

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