F. Scott Fitzgerald’s belief that there are no second acts in American lives simply did not apply to photographer Lillian Bassman.
Bassman, who died Monday at the age of 94, initially distinguished herself for artistically minded fashion and advertising photography and later in life transformed her career to that of a fine artist. Along the way, she influenced scores of other photographers and artists. Mary Ellen Mark said Tuesday, “Her absolute singularity set her apart. She was like no other. You just had to look at her images and you knew it was hers. That’s what great photographers like Helmut Newton, [Richard] Avedon, Irving Penn and her do. They don’t look like anyone else.”
Having recently seen photos Bassman took of women on the streets of Paris when she was in her 20s, Mark said these nonfashion shots hinted at her “fantastic vision and eye. She had such a range. Her fashion work was beautiful, too.”
Far-reaching as her portfolio was, Bassman’s work should continue to influence all sorts of artists, according to Mark. “When you look at the great photographers, their work carries on. It has to influence everybody, young photographers, graphic designers, artist, painters — it influences all of us.”
Bassman was always her own biggest critic, and she saw herself in every image she took, according to designer Joanna Mastroianni. “What was amazing about her was how passionate she was about her work right to the end,” she said, noting that her most recent project was a body of work on male bodybuilders.
A prolific artist, the Brooklyn-born Bassman worked tirelessly throughout her nine decades. Ever the visionary, she was always very much about what her next assignment would be. Her white hair, soft-spoken voice and frail frame belied her determination to keep tackling the new. “This is a woman who every day of her life looked forward to creating, but at the same time she gave herself permission to walk away from it for a while in the mid-Seventies. And when she decided to return, she was even more excited about it,” said Mastroianni.
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