Bassman’s unique graphic style of photography illustrates feminine mystique and glamour, as well as a courageous artist blurring the boundaries between fashion photography and fine art. Born in Brooklyn in 1917 to Russian intellectual immigrants, Lillian Bassman entered the fashion world after taking a design class taught by the famous art director, Alexey Brodovitch. Noticing her astute visual talents, Brodovitch appointed Bassman as his Co-Art Director in the founding of Junior Bazaar magazine in 1945. In that position, she helped launch the careers of many notable photographers of the century including Richard Avedon, Robert Frank, Leslie Gill, Arnold Newman, Paul Himmel and many more. After the publication was absorbed by Harper’s Bazaar, and, at the urging of her colleagues, Bassman began to photograph the models she worked with and quickly developed a body of work that was unlike any other fashion images of the period.
As fashion photography began to evolve into a more direct visual approach, Bassman continually experimented in the darkroom using various bleaching, filtering, and softening techniques, painting with light to achieve her mysterious aesthetic. Along with her contemporaries Irving Penn and Richard Avedon, Bassman’s creative efforts elevated the genre of fashion photography out of the art world shadows. Bassman achieved distinctly feminine imagery by exclusively working with her models either solo, or with female assistants in the studio. This allowed models to be photographed as pure studies of intimate femininity devoid of male-viewpoint eroticism. In addition, Bassman’s treatment of her prints in the darkroom, creating atmospheric and impressionistic effects, symbolized the mystery and inner grace of her subjects.
In the 1970’s, frustrated with the formulaic trends of fashion photography, Bassman destroyed nearly her entire archive save for a bag of negatives stowed away in a closet. After the work was re-discovered two decades later by photo-historian Martin Harrison, she was encouraged to re- interpret her classic works again using her original darkroom techniques to create a comprehensive body of work in limited editions. Richard Avedon stated of her work, “It’s magical what she does. No one else in the history of photography has made visible that heartbreaking invisible place between the appearance and disappearance of things.” Influenced by Bassman’s graceful style and career longevity, esteemed French artist Sarah Moon produced the short documentary “Something About Lillian”, capturing their mutual bridging of fashion photography and fine art.
In 1996 Bassman went back to work as a photographer and printmaker and in 2004 received the Lucie Award for Outstanding Achievement in Fashion Photography, following an innovative career spanning five decades. Today her prints continue to awe viewers with their bold, almost charcoal appearance and nostalgic elegance. Her work has been exhibited internationally since the 1970’s including recent shows at the Chanel Nexus Hall, Tokyo (2014) and Haus der Photographie Deichtorhallen, Hamburg (2009). Her work has also been recently exhibited at notable galleries throughout the United States.