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"What day is it? - 'It's today' - squeaked Piglet. 'My favourite day' - said Pooh."- A.A. Milne

19 February 2012

The Beauty of Bassman-In Appreciation, Lillian Bassman

Barbara Mullen in a gown by Irene, New York. Harper’s Bazaar, 1956
She literally blurred the way fashion photography was seen.  Lillian Bassman, a self-taught photographer took her camera and lifted fashion imagery to an art .

  "Tunic Suit," model Sunny Harnett, suit by Charles James, 1955 (Harper's Bazaar). Reinterpreted 1994.

 Her dreamy attention to grace and elegance, reflecting a painter's eye for form and pose, would forever alter how fashion models were photographed and would reinvent her art.  She wanted to  "...take the hardness out of photography”.

 Lisa Fonssagrives, 1961

Lillian Bassman was a magazine art director in the 1940s at Harper's Bazaar as the protege of Bazaar art director Alexey Brodovitch . In that role she would design innovative layouts showcasing the works of photographers such as Richard Avedon and Robert Frank sparking her interest in photography.  On her lunch hour she would frequent the darkroom at Bazaar and "play" with different techniques for printing-“I wanted everything with soft edges and cropped.” ... she wanted to create "... a new kind of vision aside from what the camera saw.” and that she did.

Black and White Coat,1950

 "I didn't bring you to Paris to make art; I brought you here to do the buttons and bows," Harper's Bazaar editor Carmel Snow told her during a fashion shoot for the magazine in the late 1940s, but Lillian Bassman saw beyond buttons and bows. She pushed the edge and turned the standard of how magazine fashion was shot.

Barbara Miller, Paris, 1949  Harper's Bazaar

Richard Avedon, who would describe Bassman's work as making "...visible that heartbreaking invisible place between the appearance and the disappearance of things..." , let  her use his studio and her self-education continued.  By 1948 she had left art direction behind and before long she landed her own accounts with  lingerie companies.  Her unique and innovative approach  highlighted the art and elegance of the models and products she shot. Her lingerie work is renowned as she redefined how lingerie was photographed-emphasizing form not function. Bassman's work revealed more of a woman's "secrets" through her use of shadows and light.

The Dressing Room, 1951.

Bassman quickly became sought after by advertisers and editorial directors alike.  As women photographers were  rare at that time she was able to establish unique relationships with her models- such as Dovima, her muse Barabra Mullen, and Suzy Parker.

 The V-Back Evenings, Suzy Parker, 1955

She had been a dance student, it is reported that she danced with Martha Graham, and had an understanding of the grace of female movement that, she said, "usually passes unnoticed in everyday life...I always look for a woman's beauty through her gestures, her movements, her hands and her neck", she said. . "I asked the models that posed for me to tell of their beauty through their hands, as if those hands were holding a special, unique moment. I was always interested in an immediate way of communicating, and the hands do just that."

 Barbara Mullen, Paris, Dinner At Nine, 1949

With her models and her camera Lillian Bassman would create some of the most memorable and exquisite fashion images-dreamy and ethereal at times, edgy and striking at others-helping to define the era of grace, glamour and style of the 1940s and 50s and forever changing fashion imagery.

Model in Gloves, 1950

Bassman's early studies as a painter helped define her signature style reflecting great masters and using the camera and the darkroom as a paintbrush- "I spent my life in the museums studying the old masters,.. Elegance goes back to the earliest paintings. Long necks. The thrust of the head in a certain position. The way the fingers work, fabrics work. It's all part of my painting background."

Margie Cato, 1950


Lillian Bassman died this week, Fashion Week in New York, she was  94.  For more on Lillian Bassman and her extraordinary work Come Visit Applause!

"Barbara Mullen, Blowing Kiss"  1950