DPP Home Profiles Lillian Bassman: Master Of Fashion Curve

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Lillian Bassman: Master Of The Fashion Curve

Now in her 90s, Lillian Bassman continues to produce groundbreaking imagery for some of the biggest names in the fashion business

This Article Features Photo Zoom

“In Full Swing.” Shalom Harlow in a tuxedo jacket by Jean Paul Gaultier, 1998.
DPP: What do you mean by “tissue over them”?

Bassman: In the darkroom, I would lay a piece of tracing paper over the photo paper, and with the spatula, move the tracing paper in a fast burst over the areas where I wanted less detail by diffusing it. Also, because tracing paper is fragile, the more I would move it, the more certain parts of the tracing paper would change. So the areas where the paper is flat are sharper than the areas that aren’t. That’s how I got different parts of the print to stay sharp and others to be softer in varying degrees. I came up with that technique. Later, I started bleaching prints. I’ve played around in the darkroom throughout my career.

DPP: When did you pick up a camera and start experimenting with your own negatives?

Bassman: At that point, when I had just quit Junior Bazaar as art director. I was talking with Alexey Brodovitch, and he said, “So why not become a photographer, Lillian?” and I said, “Fine, I’ll do that.” So I picked up the camera and went to work.

DPP: How was working with Brodovitch? He’s one of the greatest art directors of all time. What was his influence on your work?

Bassman: He was always interested in me exploring new ways of expressing myself or the photograph, so he encouraged me to try new things, which I did. He revolutionized magazine photography. He was a genius in that respect. Before Brodovitch, everything was very tight. The layouts changed completely, there was more use of white space and much more use of the photographer’s feeling for innovation. He really revolutionized the magazine world at that time.

DPP: Where did your ideas for magazine shoots come from?

Bassman: I don’t know. I just felt challenged. You just sort of grow in a certain direction. I was a Brodovitch student, so I was always pressured into finding new ways to express something. My only schooling in art growing up was going to the museums every weekend. I studied the art world from the bottom up. At different times, I had different heroes. At one point, El Greco was my god. New York’s museums, such as the Metropolitan Museum of Art, were my schooling.

Anne Saint-Marie, New York, 1958. The image was reinterpreted and reprinted as shown here in 1994.
DPP: Is the elegance in fashion that you captured during the first part of your career in the 1940s through the early 1960s alive and well, or is it gone forever?

Bassman: Well, I hope not, though the last couple of seasons have been pretty dreary. The truth of the matter is, except for the time I was in Paris, I was never given the elegant clothing. They always gave me the cheapest dresses because they said, “Oh, Lillian will make it look okay.” During the times that I wasn’t in Paris, I was given all the California designers. Fashion editor Diana Vreeland said, “Nobody knows how to pin a dress the way you do Lillian, except me.” She considered the two of us pros at making size 16 dresses look like size 4s. It’s funny, in those days, they considered California designers the worst in the world.

DPP: So you really didn’t get the couture clothes to work with except when you were in Paris.

Bassman: No way! Dick Avedon, Louise Dahl-Wolfe did.

DPP: Avedon and you became very good friends. What did he bring to photography?

Bassman: A great elegance, movement, excitement and a joie de vivre. He was a great fashion photographer. He sponsored me to a great extent. When I first wanted to do photography, he was going to Paris for two months, and he gave me his studio and his assistant for the time he was gone. That was my entrée into fashion and whatever else I wanted to do with a camera at that time.


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