I have been admiring the work of the late fashion photographer Lillian Bassman for several years. As an editor and photographer at Harper’s Bazaar from the 1940s through the 1960s, Ms. Bassman shot in color and black and white. She is best-known for her black and white photography, and these images are the ones that bewitch me.
LILLIAN BASSMAN, THE INNOVATOR
Ethereal. Expressive. Emotional. Dreamy. Dramatic. Sexy. These are the words I use to describe her work. First, fashion has a strong influence on me, both as a woman and as an interior designer. Secondly, as a visual person, I find that Ms. Bassman’s images play with light and dark, softness and edges, in an intriguing way.
An article in the New York Times states that she once told B&W magazine: “I was interested in developing a method of printing on my own…I wanted everything soft edges and cropped.” Her desire to create a vision aside the one shown by the camera lead her to experiment. Most noteworthy, she realized her vision by softening the sharp contrast of black and white by using tissues, gauze, and bleach to manipulate the tone.
Ms. Bassman’s determination to innovate and see her vision come to life is inspiring, and I can certainly relate!
THE END OF HER FASHION PHOTOGRAPHY…
Ms. Bassman stopped her fashion photography by the 1970s because her style was considered outdated. She told the New York Times in a 2009 interview, “I got sick of them [the models]…They were becoming superstars…not my kind of models. They were dictating rather than taking direction.” I find this especially relevant and interesting, because this was the start of the supermodel era… Think Twiggy and Jean Shrimpton. Ms. Bassman’s statement shows that her heart was in the art of photography. She was so displeased, in fact, that she put hundreds of negatives of her earlier work into trash bags and hid them on her New York property.
By the late 1960s, her style was being considered old-fashioned, and so her subject matter and her style took a turn. She stopped playing in black and white the way she used to. Gone were the strong, seductive images of women. In their place were manipulated images of bodybuilders, fruit, and sidewalk cracks. Interesting artistic times for Lillian Bassman, to be sure, although not my favorite.
RE-EMERGENCE OF HER CAREER
Those previously trashed negatives were discovered by a friend in the early 1990s, and he encouraged her to come back with her black and white photography. She agreed; she also found Photoshop, which allowed her to manipulate color and texture as an artist once again. In her 80s, Ms.Bassman resurrected her black and white fashion photography.
Lillian Bassman passed away in 2012 at the age of 94. She is remembered for her romantic interpretations, and for her experimental methods of manipulating light and dark, and contrast. I particularly like this playful self-portrait, full of color, with a background of her most iconic fashion photography images.