Lillian Bassman, the return of an icon


To set eyes on a photo by Lillian Bassman is mesmerizing. The image, usually that of a striking woman, hits with the force of an epiphany. Suddenly those heroin chic ad campaigns of the ‘90s seem shopworn and flat. And the clunkily posed spread in this month’s glossy feels oh-so-forced.
In the ‘50s and ‘60s, when Bassman clicked her shutter, she created a visual time capsule. One wonders, eyeing the elegant angle of a gloved arm or the mysterious tilt of a hat, “If I stare long enough at this picture, will I hear the rustle of taffeta and tulle swaying? The low and beckoning incantations of Sinatra?” It’s as if the photographer had the ability to manipulate time.
Bassman was considered one of the preeminent fashion photographers of the 20th century when she suddenly withdrew from the scene. But, now, at age 93, she is in the midst of a renaissance, prompted back to work almost by accident. And renewed interest in her legacy has led to a new book and exhibitions around the world, including a stunning retrospective, “Lillian Bassman: Women,” at the Peter Fetterman Gallery in Santa Monica. Her pictures, some not seen for decades, capture and immortalize the style of an era.
They say every picture tells a story. Here’s Lillian Bassman’s, in her favorite timeless black-and-white.

Her parents, Russian Jewish immigrants, ascended to a middle-class life in the Bronx in the 1920s. One summer, her mother took 6-year-old Lillian to Coney Island. While there, Mom earned a few extra dollars waitressing for the Himmels, who were dear friends. And, because it was beshert -- meant to be -- Lillian met their son Paul, an older chap of 9, who, in time, became her betrothed and a respected photographer in his own right. But it was another man, design genius Alexey Brodovitch, who was to chart her future.

After taking Brodovitch’s prestigious design lab class, Bassman secured an internship as his assistant at Harper’s Bazaar. She flourished, and in 1945, when Junior Bazaar debuted, she shared the masthead with Brodovitch as art director. Not only did she conceptualize layouts, but she too charted futures -- notably fostering the work of Richard Avedon (who would remain a lifelong friend).

Studying painters

Though Junior Bazaar would soon fold, Bassman wanted to master the professional aspects of photography. Avedon, away in Paris, offered her an assistant and the use of his studio. An apt and passionate pupil, she began to formulate her distinctive vision and style. She studied the great painters. She knew exactly what, in an El Greco, elicited a breath of awe, and she wanted to evoke that feeling in her own work. “I spent my life in the museums studying old masters from different periods,” she said in a recent interview. “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.” In the darkroom she spent days using a brush, bleaching a print to create dream-like contrasts and abstract effects. To give her photos dimension, she often shaded faces and clothes. The process added mystery while affording her female subjects power and presence.

But not everyone got it. Carmel Snow, editor in chief of Harper’s Bazaar (1934-1958), famously remarked to Lillian, “I didn’t bring you to Paris to do art. I brought you here to do the buttons and the bows.”

If only Snow were alive to eat her words. It’s because buttons and bows weren’t her thing that Bassman is now regarded as one of the most accomplished photographers of the 20th century.

Her “thing,” it turns out, was the elegance of women. It was that aspect of femininity that became her source of inspiration.

Bassman’s work, in turn, inspired the very fashion designers whose creations she photographed, such as Dior’s John Galliano, who has said of her work, “It was the technique and spirit that I wanted to capture in the dressmaking process.”

Perhaps her most compelling guiding spirit was her favorite model, Barbara Mullen -- noted for her 20-inch waist. As Bassman recalls, “There are models that are not models but muses. She had everything marvelous: a beautiful neck, grace, the ability to respond to me. We used to get on the floor, and when I get excited, I take my shoes off. The two of us would dance. We understood each other.”

Mullen speaks with equal effusion. “I moved very well in front of the camera. My arms, my legs -- I seemed able to do anything with them -- I felt absolutely wonderful when I moved with Lillian. I was like being free -- it was like being in heaven.” It was poetry in black and white.

But poetry is, well, not a mass medium. And if you’re a fashion magazine trying to flog clothing, the Bassman approach was a tough sell. In the ‘60s, a new species called the supermodel arrived on scene, striking diva poses. The clothes of the day, mod and hippie, ceased to be compelling. Sexuality lost its mystery. Soon, the work no longer spoke to her. She’d had enough, and she quit. In the ‘70s, Bassman destroyed most of her early work. Her darkroom went cold for 20 years.

Her return

But it turns out that this is a kind of Cinderella story. It even involves a carriage (well, carriage house). For years, Bassman had rented out the ground floor of her Manhattan carriage house to the painter Helen Frankenthaler. In 1990, Frankenthaler found bags stuffed with negatives.

She gave them to Bassman, who ignored them. In 1991, photo historian Martin Harrison spotted the exquisite negatives sitting in storage and pushed Bassman to work again. In no time, she was exhibiting at galleries. Neiman Marcus asked her to shoot a campaign. And she was dispatched to Paris, where she shot the couture collections for the New York Times Magazine. Glenda Bailey, editor in chief of Harper’s Bazaar, says, “You have an emotional response to her photographs -- you can almost smell the lily, hear the phone ring, feel the fur. Lillian is a poet of photography.”

Nowadays, the poet no longer has to stand for hours in a darkroom inhaling noxious chemicals. She pursues her art using another medium -- Photoshop. This is where she reinvents her photographs, using technology that many 20-year-olds haven’t mastered. The creative visions come to her, and she realizes them, this time with the swish of a mouse, not a paintbrush. She has embraced the new social media, interacting with fans through Facebook.

Bassman lost longtime love Paul in 2009. Himmel, whom she married in 1935, was a celebrated fashion photographer for Harper’s Bazaar and Vogue (and also a student of Alexey Brodovitch’s). Some of his nonfashion work was exhibited at MoMA, and in 1999 Assouline published a book on his career. But in the late ‘60s, a disenchanted Himmel left photography and learned psychotherapy as a profession instead. A homage to both their talents has been exhibited at the Deichtorhallen in Germany since November 2009. It’s as it should be. The two kids from New York who met more than 85 years ago and just “clicked” were always side by side in life, supporting each other in their work, and it makes sense that they are on display together.

Bassman’s children, Lizzie (a photographer and archivist of the family work) and Eric (editor in chief of Abrams Books), have always formed a vital part of her life, and they are with her daily.

When asked how she feels about her newfound stardom, Bassman shrieks with delight.

“Astounded! I can spend hours doing my own thing and enjoying every minute. I live in my studio with my work, my kids -- it’s like it’s happening to someone else.”

And in a way it is happening to someone else. Lillian Bassman remains the same flesh and blood woman. But, like her photographs, she has stepped from the darkroom into the spotlight. And, she too has been reinvented ever so slightly.