Fashion photographer Lillian Bassman, whose high contrast black-and-white fashion images from the 1940s through the 1960s enjoyed a popular resurgence fifteen years ago, has died in New York City. She was 94.
A contemporary of Irving Penn and Richard Avedon, Bassman trained and worked under Alexey Brodovitch, the legendary art director at Harper's Bazaar. In 1945, she was named art director at at Junior Bazaar, a short-lived spinoff of Harper's Bazaar. Two years later she was named art director at Harper's Bazaar, for which she shot numerous fashion spreads. Bassman also shot hundreds of ad campaigns, but became disillusioned with fashion photography in the early 70s and disappeared from the scene until she took a renewed interest in her archive in the 90s.
“I think she's up there with the greats,” says Peter Fetterman of Peter Fetterman Gallery in Los Angeles, who began exhibiting Bassman’s work in the Nineties. “I felt she was one of the great photographers of the 20th century, but because she was a woman bringing up kids in the Fifties she wasn’t allowed to be [a] careerist."
Bassman was born on June 15, 1917 in New York, and lived a bohemian life through her teens. As an aspiring fashion illustrator by her early 20s, Bassman's career took off after a friend urged her to show her drawings to Brodovitch. He arranged a scholarship so she could attend the New School for Social Research in New York City. There, Bassman studied with Brodovitch and eventually went to work for him at Harper's Bazaar, where he encouraged her always to experiment with visual ideas.
She gradually moved into photography, first as a darkroom assistant at the magazine, developing and printing images of George Hoyningen-Huene and other staff photographers. 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 techniques such as bleaching, dodging and burning, and selective focus.
Brodovitch suggested she take up photography, and Bassman's success was quick: Richard Avedon gave her use of his studio while he was out of town, and by the time he returned, Bassman had landed her first ad campaign on the strength of a test shot of a model who happened to be an ad agency art director.
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. But by the early 1970s, when supermodels began to emerge in the fashion world, eclipsing photographers and the control they had over their work, Bassman began losing interest in fashion. She soon quit commercial work, turning her attention to abstract fine art photography instead.
She ended up throwing out many of her fashion prints and negatives. Then in 1991, she came across some old negatives while photo curator Martin Harrison was visiting her house. He encouraged her to re-print some of them. Freed from the expectations of editors, she began re-interpreting the negatives.
That led by the late 1990s to a renewed interest in her work among editors and curators. Bassman attributed it to a backlash against "heroin chic," the popular but controversial fashion look of the time. Her vintage work re-appeared in fashion magazines and exhibitions around the world. In 1994, Caroussel du Louvre in Paris exhibited "Homage to Lillian Bassman." Umbrage editions published a monograph of her work, titled Lillian Bassman, in 1997.
Other collections of her work have been published since, including Lillian Bassman: Women (2009), Lillian Bassman: Lingerie, which has a release date of March 1; and Lillian Bassman & Paul Himmel (2010), which includes the work of her late husband, the photographer Paul Himmel. Bassman's work has been exhibited at Staley-Wise Gallery, Peter Fetterman Gallery, Jackson Fine Art Gallery, the Fashion Institute of Technology and elsewhere.
Peter Fetterman notes that just weeks before her death, she was working on the exhibit "Lillian Bassman: Lingerie," which will be shown at Peter Fetterman Gallery and Staley Wise Gallery this spring in conjunction with the book of the same name. "She never stopped working. She was still creating and discovering images up to the end.”
Bassman is survived by her son, Eric Himmel, editor at Abrams, and her daughter, photographer Lizzie Himmel.
Editor's note: an earlier version of this story stated incorrectly that Bassman was survived by her husband, Paul Himmel. He died in 2009.