Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Lingerie & Cracks

Lillian Bassman: photo for a Warner's lingerie advertisement, 1951

Photographer Lillian Bassman (b.1917), who cut her teeth shooting for the legendary Harper's Bazaar art director Alexey Brodovitch, and herself directed the short-lived but highly revered Junior Bazaar, is getting some much-overdue attention lately.

Lillian Bassman Park Avenue 84th to 90th, Frame #19, 1975

It's not like Bassman is unknown, but she tends to be a bit overlooked because of the fact that, as active as she was from the '40s through the early '60s, she quite decisively removed herself from the world of fashion photography in the early '70s, destroying many of her negatives and literally throwing the rest in a trash bag, where they sat until now.

Lillian Bassman More Fashion Mileage Per Dress
(model Barbara Vaughn, NYC, 1956)

Some of that lost work is currently on view at KMR Arts in Washington Depot, CT, and a new book of Bassman's photography is due later this year.

Lillian Bassman: model Barbara Miller in a photograph
Harper's Bazaar, Paris 1949

Lillian Bassman: photograph from Junior Bazaar, June 1950

Part of her resurgence has to be due to the popularity of Mad Men/Kennedy-era style; her work feels very current. As Ginia Bellafonte wrote in The New York Times:
The clothes have a structured beauty; the gloves are mandatory; the necks are long. Elegant men with cigarettes between their fingers occasionally enter the frame, encountering women who appear utterly indifferent to their attention. The perversions of inequality are absent; what appears instead is the glamour of a protracted cultural moment in which women were free from any expectation of sexual pursuit. The power of Ms. Bassman’s photographs is the power of a woman who is never moved to make a call....conveying a world in which women seemed to linger in the pleasures of their own sensuality.
Lillian Bassman: model Evelyn Tripp in an outtake from a shoot
Harper's Bazaar, 1948

Hers was a quieter, more private sexiness, seen most dramatically in her work for lingerie advertising. Again (yet again) from the Times:
In the period dominated by Avedon and Irving Penn, Ms. Bassman was one of the few female photographers in the fashion business, and her work had a distinctly different cast from the outset, one less distancing. In most of the lingerie pictures, for example, the faces are averted or obscured, the result of the Ford agency’s insistence that its models not be identifiable in such provocative advertising. The effect of this constraint is not cold anonymity but an unusual intimacy that leaves the images feeling almost entirely divorced from commodity, as if they were the visual entries in the personal journals of the women photographed.
Lillian Bassman: photo for a Warner's lingerie advertisement, 1951

In short, Bassman tired of the increasing overtness of sexuality in the '60s, and by the early '70s, decided she was done shooting people. A series of photos of cracks in the sidewalk followed; the Connecticut show features those, juxtaposed with her fashion photography.

Lillian Bassman, age 92. Photo Damon Winter/NYT.

Now 92, she has learned Photoshop and is revisiting her older work; in addition to the show in Connecticut and the forthcoming book Lillian Bassman: Women (Abrams), a retrospective in Hamburg, Germany, this fall will feature her work and that of her husband, Paul Himmel, a photographer (and later a social worker) who died earlier this year.

Lillian Bassman: Lingerie & Cracks runs through September 5th at KMR Arts in Washington Depot, CT; I highly recommend reading Ginia Bellafante's entire feature at nytimes.com.

No comments: