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LILLIAN BASSMAN (1917-2012)

Lillian Bassman was born in 1917 in Brooklyn, New York and grew up in the Bronx.  Her parents were Jewish émigrés from Russia and indulged Bassman’s bohemian adolescence, even allowing her to move in at age 15 with documentary photographer Paul Himmel, who she would later remain married to for 71 years.

Bassman studied fabric design at Textile High School in Manhattan and later studied fashion illustration at Pratt Institute in Brooklyn.  Two months after learning the art of photography in the magazine darkroom and entering the world of magazine editing and fashion photography as a protégé of Alexey Brodovitch, Bassman acquired her first major account and a regular position at Harper's Bazaar in 1946.  In 1949, she photographed her first Paris couture collection which lead to her distinguished career photographing the foremost models of her day and for advertising clients such as Chanel and Balenciaga.

Renowned for her innovative work in the darkroom, Bassman experimented by printing through unique materials like tissue and gauze and carefully "burning in" on certain areas or bleaching sections of the photograph to create images that appeared to be a cross between a watercolor and a photograph.  “I was interested in developing a method of printing on my own, even before I took photographs,” Bassman told B&W magazine in 1994. “I wanted everything soft edges and cropped.” She was interested, she said, in “creating a new kind of vision aside from what the camera saw.”

Thirty years after beginning her career, Bassman became disappointed with the photographic profession and closed the photography studio she shared with her husband and destroyed most of her commercial negatives.  However, in the early 1990’s a bag of negatives was discovered by her neighbor and returned to the photographer.  Thanks to this incredible discovery and the innovative re-printing of her images using some of the same darkroom techniques that she employed decades earlier, a new generation of admirers was introduced to Bassman and a full-fledged revival of her career ensued.  As recently as 2004, Bassman was commissioned for editorial assignments by German VOGUE and The New York Times Magazine and she became particularly skilled at digitally manipulating her images with the computer, effectively replacing her many hours in the darkroom (which was no longer feasible due to her age). Bassman’s career culminated in a joint retrospective exhibition at the Deichtorhallen Museum in Hamburg, Germany with her husband, multiple gallery exhibitions around the world, and numerous monographs.

Lillian Bassman died in New York in 2012.

SELECTED PUBLICATIONS:

Lillian Bassman (Bulfinch Press, 1997)
Lillian Bassman: Women (Harry N. Abrams, 2009)
Lillian Bassman: Lingerie (Harry N. Abrams, 2012)

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