I hadn’t previously heard of a fashion photographer called Lillian Bassman, yet when I came across some of her images in a Saturday Times Magazine a few months back, I wondered – why the hell not?! (Shown above: Anne Saint-Marie, Chanel advert, 1958)
Her work is simply exquisite. When I think of the golden age of fashion photography, I think of names like Richard Avedon, Cecil Beaton and Lord Snowdon. Now I’ll also think of Lillian Bassman.
Her photographs manage to feel both of their period, yet timelessly classic, yet also startlingly modern; it’s almost impossible to distinguish some of her earliest work from some of her latest. Working mostly in black and white, some have a noir-ish feel to them, others feel like they could be stills from an old movie or as if you’re intruding on an (immaculately-attired) personal moment.
The underwear series is breathtakingly erotic, and you can barely even see the models’ faces; there’s something unbelievably wraith-like, ethereal and sensual about how the lines have been softened and blurred. And all this without distracting from the stunning beauty of the couture outfits photographed in her work, especially from the 50s (cue obligatory Mad Men reference), which are simply stunning.
Bassman achieved many of the effects in her photographs by post-procesing manipulation in the dark room, blurring, burning and bleaching them, adding some details by hand later on (as in the photo above, hand-painting all the polka dots back in!). The use of shade and light is just phenomenal – after all, it has to be to get noticed and raved about by an art novice like me!
‘There are things that I think are marvellous and there are also pictures where I look at a particular crop and think “How awful. I couldn’t have done that. It’s mediocre”. But are you ever completely happy? No, thank goodness, or you’d stop. I think I’ll go on for ever’.
Incredibly, Bassman trashed many of her negatives in bin bags in the 1970s; they re-surfaced in the 90s, along with a greater appreciation of Bassman’s art. Even now, in her 90s, she continues to work, using digital technology and Photoshop to manipulate and make something new out of her old photographs.
I love how she combines art with fashion – ‘For me, it was about the gesture, the neck, the throat, the arch of the back’. Here are just a few of my favourites (remember to click for enlargements) and hopefully now a few more of you will discover the beauty of Lillian Bassman!
For more of Bassman’s work, check out: http://f56.net/kuenstler/lillian-bassman/lillian-bassman/, http://blog.daum.net/sooy0098/7706383 (which makes my Antivirus have a fit but doesn’t seem to do any harm), this Lillian Bassman Flickr album and this Lillian Bassman Facebook fan page, from where many of these photos were taken from.
Quotes taken from Saturday Times Magazine, 17 May 2011.