All right Mr. DeMille, I'm ready for my close-up

19 February 2012

The Beauty of Bassman, In Appreciation-Lillian Bassman

Barbara Mullen in a gown by Irene, New York. Harper’s Bazaar, 1956
She literally blurred the way fashion photography was seen.  Lillian Bassman, a self-taught photographer took her camera and lifted fashion imagery to an art .

  "Tunic Suit," model Sunny Harnett, suit by Charles James, 1955 (Harper's Bazaar). Reinterpreted 1994.

 Her dreamy attention to grace and elegance, reflecting a painter's eye for form and pose, would forever alter how fashion models were photographed and would reinvent her art.  She wanted to  "...take the hardness out of photography”.

 Lisa Fonssagrives, 1961

Lillian Bassman was a magazine art director in the 1940s at Harper's Bazaar as the protege of Bazaar art director Alexey Brodovitch .

 Teen Bazaar 1950s

 In that role she would design innovative layouts showcasing the works of photographers such as Richard Avedon and Robert Frank sparking her interest in photography.  On her lunch hour she would frequent the darkroom at Bazaar and "play" with different techniques for printing-“I wanted everything with soft edges and cropped.” ... she wanted to create "... a new kind of vision aside from what the camera saw.” and that she did.

Black and White Coat,1950

 "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 told her during a fashion shoot for the magazine in the late 1940s, but Lillian Bassman saw beyond buttons and bows. She pushed the edge and turned the standard of how magazine fashion was shot.
The Personal Touch ,Evelyn Tripp Harper's Bazaar, 1948

 Her work was experimental- moody, elegant, romantic and often daring for its time- it would become an inspiration in and of itself. Designer John Galliano,  said he had been inspired by Bassman's photographs, with their "painterly strokes of light."

Barbara Miller, Paris, 1949  Harper's Bazaar

Richard Avedon, who would describe Bassman's work as making "...visible that heartbreaking invisible place between the appearance and the disappearance of things..." , let  her use his studio and her self-education continued.  By 1948 she had left art direction behind and before long she landed her own accounts with  lingerie companies.  Her unique and innovative approach  highlighted the art and elegance of the models and products she shot. Her lingerie work is renowned as she redefined how lingerie was photographed-emphasizing form not function. Bassman's work revealed more of a woman's "secrets" through her use of shadows and light.

The Dressing Room, 1951.

Bassman quickly became sought after by advertisers and editorial directors alike.  As women photographers were  rare at that time she was able to establish unique relationships with her models- such as Dovima, her muse Barabra Mullen, and Suzy Parker.

 The V-Back Evenings, Suzy Parker, 1955

She had been a dance student, it is reported that she danced with Martha Graham, and had an understanding of the grace of female movement that, she said, "usually passes unnoticed in everyday life...I always look for a woman's beauty through her gestures, her movements, her hands and her neck", she said. . "I asked the models that posed for me to tell of their beauty through their hands, as if those hands were holding a special, unique moment. I was always interested in an immediate way of communicating, and the hands do just that."

 Barbara Mullen, Paris, Dinner At Nine, 1949

Barbara Mullen was among her favorite models. "The two of us would dance. We understood each other," 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.

 Barbara Mullen, Across the Restaurant, Paris, Harper's Bazaar 1949

With her models and her camera Lillian Bassman would create some of the most memorable and exquisite fashion images-dreamy and ethereal at times, edgy and striking at others-helping to define the era of grace, glamour and style of the 1940s and 50s and forever changing fashion imagery.

"Fantasy on the Dance Floor,"  Barbara Mullen, Christian Dior, Harper's Bazaar, 1949.  

Barbara Vaughn, More Fashion Mileage Per Dress, 1956.

 Dovima, 1954-reinterpreted 1994

Model in Gloves, 1950

Bassman's early studies as a painter helped define her signature style reflecting great masters and using the camera and the darkroom as a paintbrush- "I spent my life in the museums studying the old masters,.. 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."

Margie Cato, 1950

Changes in fashion, magazine editorial, and the rise of the Model in the fashion world left her cold and in the 1960s she walked away from fashion photography-“I got sick of them,” she told The New York Times in 2009. “They were becoming superstars. They were not my kind of models. They were dictating rather than taking direction.” In 1969 she tossed many of her commercial negatives into trash bags.

Le Bateau Mouche, Barabara Mullen, 1960 reinterpreted 1988

The negatives were found over twenty years later and Bassman then took a fresh eye to them applying the bleaching and toning techniques that she had experimented with earlier in her career creating works of art that were fascinating, mysterious and often abstract. “In looking at them I got a little intrigued, and I took them into the darkroom, and I started to do my own thing on them...I was able to make my own choices, other than what Brodovitch or the editors had made.”  In the darkroom Bassman said  she "... felt a sense of being able to say something I wanted to say,"  Her career was revived but now as an artist with her "reinterpretations" and her work was seen in gallery shows and exhibitions- she took her camera to fashion again in the 1990s for Chanel and Dior

Christian Dior — 1996

Lillian Bassman died this week, Fashion Week in New York, she was  94. 

"Barbara Mullen, Blowing Kiss"  1950