Back in November of 2005, The New York Times ran an article about fashion photographer Lillian Bassman, who had been, in the 1950s and '60s, one of the leading lights working at Harper's Bazaar, where her experimental black-and-white fashion images first appeared. However, as times and tastes changed, she fell into obscurity, and got to the point where she nearly gave up taking pictures. A small number of photographic connoisseurs remembered her work and spoke of it with the highest regard, but to the rest of the world, she no longer existed.
Bassman "is as important to fashion photography as Richard Avedon and Irving Penn," gallery owner Peter Fetterman told the Times. "She just didn't get the recognition they got."
Such is the plight of numerous women photographers, especially in America; they could always hold their own when pitted against their male counterparts – and in many instances got the better of them – but they never received the sustained critical attention that always seemed to be lavished on the boys.
The Times article has spawned something of a mini-retrospective of Bassman's work. The most recent indication comes via B&W magazine, one of the finest of current photography journals. It's pricey, but the reproduction values are splendid. The June 2006 issue has a cover story on Bassman, who is referred to as the "first lady of fashion photography."
To accompany the 12 images reproduced, which are noteworthy for their composition and the way they reimagine standard fashion iconography, Shawn O'Sullivan has provided some background about the artist, now 89.
"Lillian Bassman's photographs might appear to be about fashion but they are much more. Like fine perfume, her images impart an essence, an aura of timeless beauty and romance. They are also about illusion – they are not quite the pictures that illustrated fashion magazines in the 1950s and 1960s, when Bassman reigned as one of New York's premiere fashion photographers. She has 'revisioned' these images, using her considerable darkroom legerdemain, and soft focus."
But, as Sullivan notes, these images were almost lost to the world. Several decades ago, Bassman and her husband, photographer Paul Himmel, dismantled the studio in their Manhattan apartment and discarded much of their work. But for some reason, Bassman set aside a batch of negatives from her Harper's Bazaar days. Left in a storage room for 15 years, they were discovered by an assistant of painter Helen Frankenthaler, who rented the studio. He returned them to Bassman, and she began reprinting them in the 1990s.
Of her technique, Bassman notes: "I develop my film the way everybody does, up to a point, but by the time I get to the hypo I use bleach, I use brushes, I crop and paint. It's actually like I'm back painting. … When I get a master print I give it to a master printer, because I could never do the same thing twice. That's where the creation comes – in the tray. That's me."