Art Hash: Art, Blended
Self-taught fashion photographer Lillian Bassman’s death last week at the age of 94 was especially poignant for me. It was Bassman’s photos that launched my love of vintage style photography–capturing at once the unrivaled glamour and seeming innocence of an age gone by. Nothing compares to her ability to capture the feminine mystique–gauzy, dreamy, and elegant with a sex appeal so subtle that by today’s standard it would be considered staid.
As an artist, Bassman unquestionably had an eye for aesthetics–but beyond that she knew how to translate this into memorable imagery, how to get behind the lens and transform what she saw into something graceful, delicate, and yet, at the same time, somehow so strong. Viewing her fashion images from the 1940s and 50s, particularly those related to her work as a photographer for lingerie lines, one has the sense that they’re looking in on a private moment–from afar. There’s a connection there between the subject and the viewer weaving an intimacy not often seen in this sort of photography.
I remember sitting in a friend’s apartment whose love of photography rivals mine– his book shelves were heavy with titles on photography from around the globe. In honor of the unusually cold Los Angeles night, we lit a fire, brewed a huge pot of green tea, and camped out on the floor, books spread all around us, flipping pages and comparing favorite images. Bassman’s work was known to me, but that night I remember seeing her images and falling head over heels in love with them. The very next day I was scanning the shelves of my favorite art book shop–gathering whatever I could on her work.
I love edgy–many of her photographs are anything but. I’m captivated by art, design, and architecture that pushes the boundaries–by today’s standards hers doesn’t . Compared to the raw sex of Helmut Newton’s images, Bassman’s work is flirty and girly. She was the sort of woman who surely knew that beautiful didn’t have to mean ‘in your face’ and that less could be more.
She’ll be missed–but I’m grateful for the images she gave us over her many years.
*Bassman was Brooklyn-born and Bronx-raised, formally studied fashion and textile design, and was also known for her work under Harper’s Bazaar famed art director, Alexey Brodovitch–and their mutual helming of Harper’s spin-off, Junior Bazaar.