Lillian Bassman, Pioneering Photographer Has Died


Lillian Bassman, postwar fashion and fine art photographer, died on Feb. 13 in Manhattan, age 94. She was noted for bringing a personal touch to her images, staging shoots in a friend’s apartment and other domestic settings, and putting her models at ease by relating to them as a fellow woman, not an objectifying eye. In the 1940s and ’50s, when agencies didn’t allow their models’ faces to be seen in lingerie ads, Bassman artfully positioned the women in settings and poses that made such obfuscations appear to be natural. Her style helped transform the public’s perception of the industry, from utilitarian to glamorous. Lillian Bassman: Lingerie, a monograph of her pioneering work, will be published by Abrams in April (and is the subject of A.i.A.‘s “Critical Eye” column in the March issue, which went to press before Bassman’s death).

Bassman began her career as an unpaid intern for Alexey Brodovitch, the art director at Harper’s Bazaar, whom she had met at the New School for Social Research. He soon made her his first paid assistant and, in 1945, she became art director of Junior Bazaar, sharing the title with her mentor. There she brought in photographers like Richard Avedon and Robert Frank, who exposed her to more artistic uses of photography. She applied hands-on techniques in the darkroom for both her commercial and art photography, such as using gauze to create soft edges and bleach to alter tones.

Turned off by the fashion world of the 1960s, she destroyed her commercial negatives and stashed 100 editorial negatives in trash bags. Those were rediscovered in the early 1990s by fashion historian Martin Harrison. She began reprinting those images, manipulating them in the darkroom to create works that diverged from the originals. This body of work brought her renewed attention, leading to monographs, new assignments and exhibitions, including a retrospective at the Deichtorhallen Hamburg with her husband, documentary photographer Paul Himmel, who died in 2009. In 1996, she covered Paris fashion collections for the New York Times Magazine; her last job was for German Vogue in 2004.