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Lillian Bassman

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Lillian Bassman
20th c. graphic designer and photographer
American, b. June 15, 1907
Four decades ago, Lillian Bassman destroyed a career’s worth of negatives. In the early 1990s, something remarkable occurred: Helen Frankenthaler rediscovered a few bags full of Bassman’s negatives in the basement of Bassman’s Manhattan carriage house, which Frankenthaler was using as a studio. These negatives are the only Bassman works known to have survived her mid-life purge. Frankenthaler returned the cache to Bassman, who was then in her early eighties. Urged by her friend Martin Harrison, Bassman revisited them. Barbara Mullen (Flat Hat Bare Back) and Golden Fox, Blue Box, Marilyn Ambrose are Bassman’s reprints of those negatives culled in the early nineties.

Having arrived on the fashion photography scene in her early twenties, Bassman spent three decades creating black-and-white fashion photographs. The child of Russian Jewish immigrants, Bassman married childhood sweetheart Paul Himmel, the son of Ukrainian immigrants. Bassman had a short stint as an artist’s model before she became a studio assistant for a muralist working in New York and studied fashion illustration at Pratt Institute. There, she met Alexey Brodovitch, with whom she studied graphic design and photography; at the time Brodovitch was an established fashion photographer, who, along with Irving Penn and Richard Avedon, had revitalized fashion photography in America after the Second World War.

In 1945, Bassman and Brodovitch became joint art directors of a new publication, Junior Bazaar. Bassman began borrowing Brodovitch’s photo studio to modify his negatives, inventing a tissuing technique, in which she pressed tissue paper upon negatives where she wanted a sharper image and did not where she wanted a blurrier one. Her experimentations added a painterly effect to Brodovitch’s fashion photographs. Avedon went out of town and allowed Bassman to use his studio; only then did she begin to shoot her own photographs, expanding upon Brodovitch’s blurred-motion images. Soon, Bassman’s photographs began to be featured in Harper’s Bazaar and Seventeen Magazine at a time when few women were involved in the production and artistic aspects of the fashion industry.

Bassman quit fashion photography when form and abstraction went out of vogue in the late sixties and color and realism took their place. Now in her nineties, she has taken up digital photography and Photoshop to create romantic black-and-white photographs, while continuing to use darkroom techniques to expand upon the canvas of her photographic compositions.

By Catherine Sweatt, Academic Year Wilson Intern, 2010-2011

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