“I didn’t bring you to Paris to make art; I brought you here to do the buttons and bows,” Harper’s Bazaar editor Carmel Snow famously snapped at photographer Lillian Bassman during a fashion shoot for the magazine in the late 1940s.
But Bassman’s fashion photographs are considered to be among the greatest of the 20th century — in a league with other creative masters, including Richard Avedon and Irving Penn — and an inspiration to such designers as John Galliano and the subject of exhibitions around the globe.
Her photos captured a mid-century world of elegant, slightly elongated women, impeccably dressed, done up in high-contrast black and white. Avedon once described her style as making “visible that heartbreaking invisible place between the appearance and the disappearance of things.”
Bassman died Monday at 94 at her home in Manhattan, her son Eric Himmel announced, working right up until the end.
Lillian Bassman was born June 15, 1917, in New York City, the daughter of Russian Jewish immigrants who allowed her to live a bohemian life from a young age. She met her future husband, photographer and psychotherapist Paul Himmel, at Coney Island when she was 6 and he was 9 and began living with him at age 15 with her parents’ blessing. In her youth she reportedly danced with Martha Graham, posed nude at the Art Students’ League and, with Himmel, spent many hours at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, where she studied the great painters and began to formulate her distinctive vision and style. El Greco was a favorite.
She studied fabric design at a vocational school and became a painter and graphic designer. Eventually she met Alexey Brodovitch, the renowned art director of Harper’s Bazaar, and enrolled in his prestigious design lab class. Brodovitch invited her to join him as his assistant at Harper’s. In 1945, when Junior Bazaar debuted, she became co-art director with Brodovitch.
In that capacity, she chose and prominently displayed the work of budding photographic stars, including Avedon, Robert Frank and Louis Faurer. She began frequenting the darkroom, and when Avedon went off to Paris on assignment in 1947, he lent her his studio and the use of his assistant. By 1948, she had given up art direction for full-time photography.
A female fashion photographer was rare in those days, and Bassman was able to develop a special rapport with her models.
Barbara Mullen was among her favorites. “The two of us would dance. We understood each other,” Bassman said in an interview with the Los Angeles Times in 2010.
Mullen said working with Bassman made her feel free. “My arms, my legs — I seemed able to do anything with them. It was like being in heaven,” she said.
Bassman’s photography was informed by her work as a painter.
“I spent my life in the museums studying the old masters,” she said in the same Times 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.”
Galliano, when he was creative director for Christian Dior, said he had been inspired by Bassman’s photographs, with their “painterly strokes of light.” And Kate Spade’s creative director Deborah Lloyd cited Bassman’s photographs of the period as an inspiration for a collection last fall.
By the early 1970s, Bassman had become disenchanted with the direction fashion photography had taken and with the advent of the era of supermodels. She destroyed most of her commercial negatives, bundled others into trash bags stored in her carriage house and turned to more artistic photographic endeavors, shooting still lifes and nudes.
In 1991, photo historian Martin Harrison spotted the surviving fashion negatives and pushed Bassman to begin working in the field again. At his urging, she did, shooting Paris couture for the New York Times magazine and an ad campaign for Neiman Marcus, among other assignments. In more recent years, she began using digital techniques to reinvent her old photographs.
Bassman’s works have been published in “Lillian Bassman” in 1997 and “Lillian Bassman: Women” in 2009, which was also the subject of an exhibition at the Peter Fetterman Gallery in Santa Monica in 2010. “Lillian Bassman: Lingerie” is to be published by Abrams in March and will be the focus of a Fetterman exhibit scheduled March 10 through June 9.
Her works have also been displayed in numerous other venues, including the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, the Galleria Sozzani in Milan, the Centre National de la Photographie in Paris and the Deitchtorhallen in Hamburg, Germany.
Paul Himmel, whom Bassman married in 1935, died in 2009. Besides their son, she is survived by their daughter, Lizzie Himmel, and three grandchildren.