Lillian Bassman died Monday in her home in Manhattan at the age of 94. Starting in 1945, Bassman served as the Art Director for Harper Bazaar spin-off magazine Junior Bazaar, where she featured images by future photographic stars like Richard Avedon, Robert Frank and Louis Faurer. It was inspiration from these photographers that got Bassman started on her own career as a fashion photographer.
Bassman was largely self-educated in photography, picking up help from the big fashion photographers of the time. Even in her early work Bassman experimented with new techniques, treating fashion in a bold, graphic style and using tissues and gauzes to bring selected areas of a picture into focus and applying bleach to manipulate tone.
She was interested, she said, in “creating a new kind of vision aside from what the camera saw.”
Bassman became highly sought after for her expressive portraits of slender, long-necked models advertising lingerie, cosmetics and fabrics. The changes in the fashion industry in the 1960s left her cold, and she destroyed most of her commercial negatives. In the 70s and 80s her focus shifted to her fine art photography of things like cracks in the city streets and distorted male torsos based on photographs in bodybuilding magazines.
Then in the early 1990s a fashion curator and historian, discovered 100s of long-forgotten negatives of her famous fashion photography. Bassman began reprinting the negatives, applying some of the bleaching techniques and other toning agents with which she had first experimented in the 1940s, creating more abstract, mysterious prints.
Her reinterpretations found a new generation of admirers, and a full-fledged revival of her career ensued, with gallery shows and international exhibitions. She completed her last fashion assignment for German Vogue in 2004.