The Queen of 20th Century Fashion Photography Returns to New York

Photo: Lillian Bassman, Golden Fox, Blue Fox, Marilyn Ambrose, Boa by Frederica, New York, Harper’s Bazaar, November 1954.

Lillian Bassman is a New York original. Born in Brooklyn in 1917 to Jewish émigrés from the Ukraine, Bassman worked as an artist’s model, a textile designer, and a fashion illustrator before joining Harper’s Bazaar in 1941. Working under art director Alexey Brodovitch, Bassman art director of Junior Bazaar from1945-48, where she regularly hired photographers including Richard Avedon, Arnold Newman, and Robert Frank. In 1946, Bassman picked up the camera and began to create a singular body of black and white work that has become the standard bearer for mid-twentieth century fashion photography. Bassman died in 2012, at the age of 94, having lived a singular life in the medium.

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Edwynn Houk Gallery, New York, has announced exclusive representation of the Estate of Lillian Bassman. A selection of more than 30 photographs, from early vintage prints to her reinterpreted prints made in the 1990s, is now on view in Lillian Bassman at the gallery through July 15, 2016. A Bassman photograph taps into the eternal feminine energy, an intensely vibrant experience that is not entirely linear. Using blurred silhouettes, exaggerated gestures, and unusual compositions, Bassman’s photographs reveal the depth of understanding that a woman brings to the subject of women.

Lillian Bassman, "Night Bloom," Hat by Christian Lacroix Haute Couture, Olga Pantushenkova, Paris, The New York Times Magazine, 31 March 1996.

Lillian Bassman, “Night Bloom,” Hat by Christian Lacroix Haute Couture, Olga Pantushenkova, Paris, The New York Times Magazine, 31 March 1996.

The photographer revealed, “I am completely tied up with softness, fragility, and the problems of a feminine world.” She used the photograph as the medium to evoke the complex intensity of all that is female. Bassman noted, “The women who intrigued me [as models] had the most beautiful necks and the most responsive hand movements. At one point, I found El Greco, and that elongated look became my way of seeing.”

As Bassman’s eye came to embody the enigmatic spirit of the chic, revealing an exquisite balance of light and dark across the page. Working in the darkroom, Bassman transformed her photographs using a variety of techniques that allowed her manipulate the way in which the image appeared. The result is one that embodies an ethereal form, casting light and shadow as if it were a poem, revolutionizing the genre itself.

Lillian Bassman, Tra Moda e Arte: Teresa in a gown by Laura Biagiotti and shoes by Romeo Gigli, 1996.

Lillian Bassman, Tra Moda e Arte: Teresa in a gown by Laura Biagiotti and shoes by Romeo Gigli, 1996.

In the early 1970s, Bassman left the industry. Disillusioned by the state of the commercial world, she destroyed most of her negatives and prints. Twenty years later, she discovered a box of negatives and began re-interpreting them. Forever the phoenix, Bassman used the darkroom, and later the computer, to change the original framing, accentuating contrast and blurriness and retouching the background. Staying ahead of the curve, Bassman laid it down, maintaining a career in photography the like of which few have ever known.

Lillian Bassman, Southwest Passage - Sunset Pink: Model in pajamas by Kickernick, Harper's Bazaar, 1951.

Lillian Bassman, Southwest Passage – Sunset Pink: Model in pajamas by Kickernick, Harper’s Bazaar, 1951.

All photos: © Lillian Bassman Estate. Courtesy of the artist and Edwynn Houk Gallery, New York and Zurich.

Miss Rosen is a New York-based writer, curator, and brand strategist. There is nothing she adores so much as photography and books. A small part of her wishes she had a proper library, like in the game of Clue. Then she could blaze and write soliloquies to her in and out of print loves.