Master Series: Lillian Bassman

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Lillian Bassman was one incredibly groovy chick that I happen to relate to a lot. Best known for her moody, contrast-driven, dark and grainy fashion photographs, after 20 years of working for Harper’s Bazaar she abandoned her career only to revisit it 20 years later. She’s been exhibited in New York, Paris, Munich, Los Angeles, London, just to name a few places. A true-blue New Yorker, Lillian was born in Brooklyn in 1917 and died 94 years later in Manhattan. And in my opinion, her work is just incredible. She was a true photographer, a master of her medium.

Born to liberal Russian immigrants who were probably hippies before there were hippies (why couldn’t this be my story??) she was encouraged to live her life as an unconventional free-thinker. She studied at the Textile High School in Manhattan where Alexey Brodovitch was also attending at the same time. For those of you who don’t know, Alexey Brodovitch was the art director for Harper’s Bazaar from 1938 to 1958. Pretty great timing, if you ask me. And it was through Brodovitch that Lillian Bassman got her initial start in fashion photography. She was working as a textile designer and fashion illustrator until Alexey influenced Lillian to start shooting.

An excerpt from The New York Times, “Already, at Harper’s Bazaar, she had begun frequenting the darkroom during her lunch hours to develop images by great fashion photographer George Hoyningen-Huene, using tissues and gauzes to bring selected areas of a picture into focus and applying bleach to manipulate tone.” I love that. I have destroyed the skin on the top of my hands by not wearing gloves in the darkroom and working with chemicals like Potassium Ferricyanide and Selenium to tone my prints. Photography was such a hands-on medium before digital. I don’t know, just made me smile to read this about her.

She had a huge career in the 1940’s through the 1960’s. The styles of the of the ‘60’s, however, didn’t gel with her. Even the models bugged her, “I got sick of them. They were becoming superstars. They were not my kind of models. They were dictating rather than taking direction.” In 1969, thoroughly fed up with the photographic profession, she BURNED most of her commercial negatives. She then put over 100 editorial negatives in large trash bags and put them out in her carriage house, forgetting about them for 2 decades. Fucking far out! I love that about her! Talk about passionate!

Luckily for us, though, a friend rediscovered the discarded images in the carriage house and convinced Bassman to publish her archives and return to fashion photography. She grabbed a few negatives, returned to the darkroom and printed them the way she saw them, not Brodovitch or another editor. This freedom gave her the inspiration she needed to continue with her work. Her reinterpretations, as she called them, found new fans of her work and thus a full re-emergence into her career came about with numerous exhibits and editorial work.

On a personal note, Ms. Bassman met her future husband, documentary photographer Paul Himmel at Coney Island when she was six years old. They met again when she was 13 and started living together when she was 15. Later they were married and stayed married for 73 years. That story really struck me, not sure why. She just sounds like she was a determined, passionate woman who did what she wanted and loved with great passion and fire. Even when she became disgusted with the industry, she burned her negatives. I’ve destroyed my work too, one time I threw my portfolio off the Santa Monica pier, vowing to never return to the industry. I have to laugh as I read what I’m writing, sitting here, after 34 years of shooting, still shooting, still writing about it, still inspired by photographers like Lillian. But I understand that frustration. When researching this piece for Breed, I looked up her Wikipedia page. One sentenced just screamed out at me: “Bassman became one of the last great woman photographers in the world of fashion.”

That line, it stung a little.

Here are some of my favorite pieces of her work, both from her earlier archives (of the stuff that wasn’t burned) and some of her work from her reinterpretations.

Melissa Rodwell