Lillian Bassman (1917 – 2012)
Born in New York into a Russian Jewish émigré family, Lillian first studied fabric design and illustration and was soon accepted into the Design Laboratory at the New School for Social Research, where she studied fashion illustration and graphic design.
She joined Harper’s Bazaar magazine in 1941 as an assistant art director to fellow Russian Alexey Brodovitch and in late 1945, with the launch of Junior Bazaar, became its art director. Working with the likes of Richard Avedon and Robert Frank inspired her to enter fashion photography.
Lillian was intrigued by the idea of image manipulation, and experimented in the darkroom during her lunch breaks, using tissue and gauze, burning in certain areas, or bleaching out others.
Her high-contrast, dreamy images achieve a cross between illustration and photography. Innovative and sensual, Lillian’s work became highly sought after. She photographed her first Paris collection in February 1949, depicting a Parisian adventure, featuring iconic locations like the Hotel Ritz. This assignment produced some of her most well-known work, featuring the young Barbara Mullen who went on to become a supermodel.
Lillian left the fashion world in 1970, destroying much of her archive, and moving into more abstract work and experimental large-format colour still lives. In the early 1980s she started re-photographing colour images of male bodybuilders from magazines, creating visual distortions. The results were in sharp contrast to the fashion and lingerie work she was known for.
Then, in her 80s, Lillian began Photoshop and Digital techniques and reprinting her fashion images such as Carmen, New York, 1963, printed 1994. These reinterpretations found a new generation of admirers and she was commissioned to photograph the Paris collections for theNew York Times Magazine in 1996, and did assignments for Vogue up until 2004, her last fashion assignment being for German Vogue in 2004.
At the time of her death in 2012, Harper’s Bazaar published this tribute:
” The world has lost not only a great artist but also one of my personal heroes. Through Lillian’s lens, a photograph became a sensual work of art, conveying the movement and mystery of the woman of style…”
Her life partner was the documentary photographer Paul Himmel and her daughter is the New York photographer Lizzie Himmel, known for her 1985 portraits of Jean-Michel Basquiat in his studio.
By Paula Vellet