The Archives: Lilian Bassman
Bassman’s debut as a photographer came at the close of Junior Bazaar in 1948, wedding images for a spread titled Happily Ever After. This whimsical portfolio was followed by securing an account with a lingerie company that proved fertile grounds as she honed her nascent, trademark niche. Bassman harnessed this opportunity and sparked a revolution within the market’s conventional approach to advertising women’s undergarments. Disposing of the traditional elder and thicker models posed in corsets, she introduced sinewy, long-necked women entangled in shadows, frozen in dreamlike states.
Foundations in painting and deviation from commercially-driven work, led her to discover her own, distinctively feminine manner of seeing as a photographer in a widely male-dominated field. With the Roliflex, or Hasselblad, or Deardorff camera in hand, Bassman cultivated candid, intimate relationships with her models of the 1950s-1960s—Barbara Mullen in particular headlining as her muse—organically capturing their female beauty. Bassman confided, “It is part of the nature of a woman to be unconsciously graceful… I try to record that natural grace with the camera.”
By the end of the 60s, Bassman resigned from fashion, lamenting that the new breed of models had become “superstars,” more inclined “to give than take direction.” She trashed and stowed hundreds of negatives from this era and refocused, substituting still life subjects as her next source of raw material to reshape and devoted the next twenty years to fine art, large-format Cibachrome prints. In the early 1990s, Martin Harrison, friend and fashion curator, stumbled upon the lost negatives and encouraged Bassman to return to her darkroom alchemy.
Diffuse with tissue, blur with gauze, double expose and blow smoke, bleach and burn with potassium cyanide. Obscure. Elongate. Add enigma. Add elegance. Add poetry. Repeat. Here, she consummated abandoned visions from past shoots and created an aura in which the viewer is granted the perspective of a voyeur and accomplice to its rendering. It’s as if Brodovitch himself remained a voice throughout all these decades, an unrelenting echo in her ear.
“Astonish me.” And, Bassman gave us texture.
“Astonish me.” And, Bassman gave us extremes in contrast.
“Astonish me.” And, Bassman gave us evanescent women, ever-exuding subliminal grace.
She self-defined her cannon as “reinterpretations.” Through Bassman, the high-fashion faces formerly gracing the nation’s glossies were reinterpreted. Finished prints reworked and streamlined to their essential lines and silhouettes, to the necessary blacks and complimenting whites. Bassman’s photography is distinct in character, exhibiting the voice of an authentic, innovative auteur. She fine-tuned an aesthetic that was abstraction without sacrificing refinement, merging her first love of painting and juxtaposing it with a romanticized approach to post-production. The outcome—arresting images of women for generations to admire.
To read the full article from our Issue Women, visit here