LILLIAN BASSMAN the alchemist
Image above: ©Lillian Bassman. The Mold of the Princess-Everything Black and Lacy, model unknown, lingerie by Lily of France, 1954. All images courtesy of Edwynn Houk,Gallery, New York.
Pioneer. Revisionist. Alchemist—or simply, who you become when recruited by the art director god of mid-century America, Alexey Brodovitch, and gifted full-access to a friend’s (read Richard Avedon’s) domestic studio and the darkroom becomes your playground. Born in Brooklyn in 1917 to Russian-Jewish émigrés, Lillian Bassman’s bohemian upbringing was steeped in art and independent exploration. Manhattan’s museums were Bassman’s stomping grounds, classic paintings and sculptures her drug and Paul Himmel, the son of a family friend and documentary filmmaker, her uncannily, well-suited partner in art and marriage for over 70 years.
©Lillian Bassman. (left) Born to Dance, Margie Cato, Dress by Emily Wilkins, New York, 1950/1994; (right) Dress by Jacques Fath for Joseph Helpert, Barbara Mullen, New York, Harper’s Bazaar, March 1950/1994.
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Enmeshed in fashion since her days at Chelsea’s Textile High School, modeling and assisting muralists with the Works Progress Administration (WPA) and onto fashion illustration at the Pratt Institute, she impressed Brodovitch, then art director of Harper’s Bazaar, and was handpicked for his design program at the New School for Social Research (sans tuition). Moreover, as his protégé-to-be, Brodovitch altered Bassman’s original major of fashion illustration to his arena of expertise, graphic design. By 1941, she was his unpaid apprentice at Harper’s and a mere four years later, at his charge, shared the lucrative title as art director for the publication’s fresh, youthful division, Junior Bazaar. In this novel role, Bassman’s keen eye advanced the careers of up and-coming photography icons—moguls like Avedon, Robert Frank and Louis Faurer (whom she credits as the catalyzing force driving her own desire to take up the camera). Brodovitch’s mainstay modus operandi was a simple two-words: “Astonish me.” And Bassman, followed en suite. Lunch hours were spent in Harper’s darkrooms, a neophyte’s inroad to developing techniques, self-training with negatives taken by famed couture photographer, George Hoyningen-Huene. In Bassman’s words, “I was interested in developing a method of printing on my own, even before I took photographs… I wanted everything soft edges and cropped… creating a new kind of vision aside from what the camera saw.”
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.
©Lillian Bassman. Betty Beihn, Nude 1, 2012.
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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 Rolleiflex, 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.
by Melissa Maehara
Check out more wonderful women artists on Musée No. 13