Ethereal State of Mind

When we think of fashion photography among Mad Men and martinis, both the moving and missed Irving Penn and the equally impressive Richard Avedon come to mind.

Other famous fashion photographers of the time (ish) include Helmut Newton and Herb Ritts.

Now all of these men have created beautiful images. Their deaths, all in the last decade, and the resulting tremors insist upon their secured seats in the canon and zeitgeist of fashion photography.1

There is one woman, their contemporary, who is often forgotten or overlooked. Lillian Bassman. Born in Brooklyn in 1917 to Russian Jewish emigrés parents, Bassman’s career began with Junior Bazaar and most of her work was published in Harper’s Bazaar between 1950 and 1965.

Like Penn and Avedon, whose career Ms. Bassman helped to advance, Bassman turned away from fashion photography in toward the end of the 1960s and in the 70s. She was even more vocal and aggressive in her disillusionment, however. As the 1960s came to a close, Bassman destroyed a decades’ worth of negatives and threw away others into a trash bag in the coal room of her Manhattan home.

Years later, she relented and recovered many of these lost images. In 2009, there was a retrospective of her work at KMR Arts in Washington Depot, Conn. That year Deborah Solomon’s tome Lillian Bassman: Women was published.

My all-time favorite Lillian Bassman image: beautiful, strong, and transformative in content and mood. I would love a print of this: how? where? Help.

I was exposed to her gorgeous photography via this New York Time‘s article, published last summer. Speaking of her “furtive eroticism,” this apt introduction to her indelible talent was immediately stirring for me. And I have not forgotten either the name “Lillian Bassman” nor the effect seeing her work for the first time had on me.

In her photos, I see the HINT of so many things: feminine and female strength, furtive (yes) but also fecund, faulty, fickle; the beauty of the ephemeral, in Fashion, in a moment, in a movement. Her photographs manage to be both vulnerably voyeuristic and explicitly revelatory, like secrets you’re not sure were told to you or mistakenly overheard. There is an ethereal beauty in these images that I find haunting– and the perfect antidote to the isolation of stormy weather.

1. It is interesting to me that both photography and fashion had to assert their claim as viable and legitimate forms of Art (with a capital A). Fashion, which still struggles, as all crafts do, for this legitimacy, is so dependent on photography for its own exposure that there is a special place in my heart for fashion photographers, however often many of them may turn their backs on this medium.

Posted in Art

3 thoughts on “Ethereal State of Mind”

  1. you know right now I’ve been going to the Film Noir Festival at the Castro all week and there is some amazing costume design in these movies – all from maybe 1940-1959 – and it’s a different pairing: fashion and cinematography.

    Film Noir is so much about the cinematography – the long shadows, draping lines of light and lack of light.

    And in one we saw over the weekend – Niagara – Marilyn Monroe’s dress is actually one of the characters it seems for a whole scene. [] It looks red in this pic but it’s actually bright pink.

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