Above: Barbara Mullen, New York, Harper's Bazaar, circa 1958
Lillian Bassman's distinctive photographs were highly sought after by fashion editors of the 1940s and 50s. Produced by careful darkroom manipulation, they brought elegance and whimsy to a previously fusty, straight-backed style of promoting clothes and jewellery.
Night Bloom: Anneliese Seubert in Givenchy Haute Couture, 1956
Bassman was born in Brooklyn in 1917 into a family of free-thinking intellectuals. So bohemian were her parents that they allowed her to move in with her future husband at 15, before they were married. She trained as a textile designer first, but decided to try her hand at fashion illustration. When she showed her portfolio to Alexey Brodovitch, the director of Harper’s Bazaar, he immediately accepted her at his prestigious Design Laboratory, where she switched to graphic design.
More Fashion Mileage Per Dress: Barbara Vaughn in a dress by Filcol, New York. Harper's Bazaar, 1956
When Harpers Bazaar launched Junior Bazaar in 1945, she became the title's art director, and worked hard to promote the work of then fledging photographers Richard Avedon and Robert Frank. She liked to help with printing the images, and would often be found in the darkroom during her lunch break, tinkering with the images in the darkroom to show the work to best effect.
Wonders of Water: Model Unknown, Harper's Bazaar, 1959
“I was interested in developing a method of printing on my own, even before I took photographs,” she said during an interview later in life. "In there, I felt a sense of being able to say something I wanted to say...creating a new kind of vision aside from what the camera saw.”
Born to Dance: Margie Cato in a dress by Emily Wilkes, New York, 1950
When she eventually turned her hand to taking pictures, her light-hearted, poetical approach caught the eye of those that mattered, and soon she was photographing for commercial as well as editorial clients. Everything she photographed received the same care and attention, whether it were a packet of cigarettes or a dress by Dior.
Betty Threat, New York. Harper's Bazaar, circa 1957
She fell out of fashion in the 1960s, when a rougher, hard-edged style infiltrated the fashion pages, and pictures became more about the models than the clothes they wore. Disheartened, she tried to destroy most of her negatives, and moved toward focusing on her own work, which varied from colourful still life to things she saw on the streets of New York.
Across the Restaurant: Barbara Mullen in a dress by Jacques Fath. Le Grand Vefour, Paris, 1949
It was a chance discovery of some of her remaining, long-forgotten negatives in the 1990s that led to a resurgence of interest in her work. She began working with her old negatives all over again, this time in Photoshop, producing a series of abstract images that delighted a new generation of fans.
New Look Corset: Model Unknown, Christian Dior, Harper's Bazaar, circa 1950
Bassman died in February 2010, aged 94, but her images continue to extend a profound influence. Her gallery, Staley Wise of New York said: "While taken nearly 50 years ago, Lillian Bassman's innovative and sensual photographs continue to inspire today's photographers and fashion designers. Her work remains indelibly timeless."
Charles James Dress: Carmen, New York. Harper’s Bazaar, 1960
For further information, please visit the Staley Wise website.