Lillian Bassman, 1917-2012

Lillian Bassman, Lisa Fonssagrives, New York, 1961

Lillian Bassman, Across the Restaurant, 1949

Lillian Bassman, Harper’s Bazaar, Barbara Miller, Paris, 1949

A New York City native, Lillian Bassman studied textile design in high school and modeled for the Art Students League. She joined the Works Progress Administration as a painting assistant in 1934, and when it was discontinued in 1939, studied fashion illustration at Pratt Institute and worked as a textile designer. Alexey Brodovitch, the art director at Harper’s Bazaar, offered her a scholarship to study with him at the New School for Social Research in 1940, and encouraged her to pursue graphic design. She became his first salaried assistant at Harper’s Bazaar and in 1945 was appointed co-art director at Junior Bazaar, a short-lived Hearst publication. During her tenure there, she provided many emerging photographers–Robert Frank and Richard Avedon among them–with their first opportunities to work in fashion. Bassman began making her own photographs while at Junior Bazaar, and when the magazine ceased production in 1947, she became a freelance fashion and advertising photographer, specializing in lingerie, fabrics, cosmetics, and liquor, and working chiefly for Harper’s Bazaar and commercial clients. Bassman’s editorial work for Bazaar lessened in the later 1960s, and she retired from commercial photography in 1970. In the 1970s and 1980s, she exhibited large-format color photographs of fruits and vegetables, abstractions, and “musclemen,” among other subjects; she has recently been re-interpreting the negatives of her 1940s and 1950s fashion photography, in addition to executing new fashion assignments.

Bassman’s photography is notable for her unusual printing techniques and innovative graphic effects, which involve experimentation with gauze and tissue in the darkroom.  This experimentation, combined with the close rapport she establishes with her models, has resulted in pictures memorable for their emotional atmosphere, impressionistic mood, and subtlety of intimate gestures.

Lisa Hostetler in Ellen Handy et al. Reflections in a Glass Eye: Works from the International Center of Photography Collection, New York: Bulfinch Press in association with the International Center of Photography, 1999, p. 208.

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About erinbarnett

Assistant Curator, Collections at the International Center of Photography, New York
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