The Crowning of Chic Lillian Bassman's vision of Phillip Treacy's designs Vogue Cover, Germany. 1990s
As artists we draw inspiration from a myriad of sources, one of which is work from other creative fields. The work of fashion photographer, Lillian Bassman is ripe for creative sustenance.
Those of you who are familiar with my Fashion as Fantasy and Whimsical Heads Pinterest boards, know that I sometimes look for cross-fertilisation amongst fashion designers and fashion shoots. Having recently discovered the sultry black and white shots of Lillian Bassman, I confess I couldn't stop pinning.
Same Sex Art
Bassman, the daughter of bohemian jewish emigrés from Russia and the Ukraine, grew up in New York and had a very successful career as a fashion and commercial photographer for Harper's Bazaar and other periodicals during the 40's and 50's. Her particular strength was photographing women, a subject that fascinated her. The models, for once freed from the sexual charge so prevalent in the shoots done by male photographers, were able to be more relaxed and open with Bassman.
Night Bloom by Lillian Bassman Gelatin silver print 24 x 20 in (Hat by Christian Lacroix Haute Couture, OlgaPantushenkova, Paris) The New York Times Magazine, March 31,1996
Diffused background on photo by Lillian Bassman Source, date and specifications not found
Model Carmen, early 1950s shot by Lillian Bassman Strong contrast of light and dark achieved by bleaching using potassium cyanide and 'burning' via long exposure to light.
Although some of Bassman's effects were created during the actual shoot where she would blow smoke on the lens, the darkroom was a place of unfettered experimentation. Here she burned and bleached her images.
By the 60s, Bassman grew disillusioned with the stylised fashion shoots withdrew from the world of fashion photography to pursue other projects.
Reinterpreting Previous Work
In the early 90s during a visit to her home, Martin Harrison, a photo-historian and fan of Bassman's work, found some bags of old negatives from her 50's fashion work. Bassman was intrigued by her old contact sheets and began to print and rework the images she had loved, but the editors had not. She reworked the images using a combination of darkroom and Photoshop techniques. With no editors to answer to, she was finally able to bring forth the vision she had held all along of how she wanted the photographs to be.
These reinterpretations brought her back into the limelight and she returned to photograph the Paris collections for the New York Times magazine in 1996, and worked for Vogue until 2004.
Bassman's Photos as Creative Inspiration
Even for artists in other disciplines, Bassman's photos are inspiring: The bravery of her experimentation, the incredible levels of contrast she achieved as well as those dreamy, diffused edges so reminiscent of charcoal - any or all might provide jumping off points for our own work.
More on Lillian Bassman
Comment: What ideas might Bassman's techniques inspire you to try?
Footnote While this online exhibition shows when some of Bassman's most famous images were shot, I couldn't find documentation which clearly indicated which photographs were retouched later and which are in their original state - so we are left to speculate. Perhaps that's just part of the ambience of mystery that Bassman was so good at creating.