Like her cat, Gooch, Lillian Bassman seems to have nine lives — at least professionally.
A protégé of famed art director Alexey Brodovitch, Bassman shaped the pages of Harper’s Bazaar in the Forties and Fifties, launched Junior Bazaar in 1945 and pursued a successful photography career through the Seventies after leaving the magazine. But she fell somewhat out of favor over the succeeding decade — only to enjoy a revival a decade later.
In the early Nineties, Bassman reinvented herself after bags of negatives from her Bazaar shoots were rediscovered in her studio and friend Martin Harrison encouraged her to restore them. The product of that late return to the darkroom produced her most popular works: By brushing, bleaching and exposing her old negatives, Bassman created romantic, paintinglike fashion images. Those pictures stirred a renewed interest in her career. She was given exhibits of her photos, published a book and was hired to shoot for Neiman Marcus and The New York Times — at the age of 80.
The renaissance of her career continues as the 91-year-old Bassman preps for her latest exhibit at the Hearst Tower on Oct. 29, called “Art & Elegance: The Photographs of Lillian Bassman.” It will be followed in November by a joint exhibit with husband Paul Himmel in Hamburg, Germany, and another book, to be published next year by Harry N. Abrams. The show at the Hearst Tower will be, as curator John Bennette calls it, “a Valentine” to Bassman. “Anybody can take a picture,” he said, “but to transform that into art is a miracle.”
She reflected back on her technique and her work with Bazaar pioneers Brodovitch and famed editor in chief Carmel Snow with a sharp sense of humor and playful wit in the Upper East Side town house she shares with Himmel, to whom she’s been married for more than 70 years.
“The images, the taking of the photographs, is really what the outfit dictates,” said Bassman. “It’s where my sense of beauty comes in. It’s where I dance and show the model what sort of a gesture I want. The contacts are almost like everybody else’s contacts. But when I get into the darkroom, that’s when I begin to mold the dress, mold the model, feel my way through the gesture and figure out how to exaggerate.” And, even after experimenting in the darkroom with exposure through tissue or chemical treatments, she might still find room for expression. “Nothing is ever a finished product for me,” she said, smiling behind oversize Dior frames as a purring Gooch danced across her lap.
Bassman started as a textile designer and painter, but soon realized her talents lay elsewhere. “I discovered that I was really a docile painter because I was copying everyone else,” she said. She then took up fashion illustration at the Pratt Institute, which led to her introduction to Brodovitch, who at the time taught at The New School. “I showed him these drawings and he said, ‘Oh, they’re marvelous, but you know nothing about fashion. I have a class and I will give you a scholarship.” Once she graduated, Brodovitch recruited her to work at Bazaar — but not without a fight.
“There were six months when I went to work for another art director, and Brodovitch would call me every two days and say, ‘You have to come back to Harper’s Bazaar, Lillian.’ And I would say, ‘Get me a salary and I’ll come back!’” she said. The Hearst Corp., she said, finally came through with the cash. “I was the first paid assistant in the art department,” Bassman said proudly.
As for working with Snow, Bassman said: “I adored Carmel. She had a very specific kind of taste. Paris was the fashion world; America, she sort of put up with. And when you went to Paris to do a collection, you had to be absolutely true to her vision.” One famous incident exemplified that mandate: Assigned to shoot a Piguet dress in Paris, she took the liberty to shoot model Barbara Mullen in a whimsical, butterflylike pose. Snow remarked to her that the dress was a “column of chiffon” and should be displayed as such. “She said, ‘I didn’t bring you here to photograph your butterflies, I brought you here to photograph the buttons and the bows.’ I had to rephotograph that dress.”
The renewed interest in Bassman’s work comes as fashion photography is seen, more than ever, as a form of art. “When we were going to open our gallery, we said we we’re going to show fashion, and people considered it a big joke because that was not considered worthy of being in a gallery,” said Etheleen Staley, director of Staley-Wise Gallery in SoHo and the main dealer for Bassman’s works. “But people started to revise their thinking. And, as people began to like fashion, certain people emerged as being very good at it, taking it to the level of art. Lillian’s one of them.”