Issue #189  2/28/2012
Fashion Photographer Lillian Bassman Dies

Fashion and art photographer Lillian Bassman has passed away at the age of 94 on Monday, February 13 in her Manhattan home. Bassman was born on June 15, 1917, in Brooklyn and grew up in the Bronx.

Starting off as a protégé of Alexey Brodovitch, the legndary art director of Harper's Bazaar, she became an art director in her own right for Junior Bazaar, a spin-off, in late 1945. She often used photographers who would later become some of the top names of their generation—Avedon, Frank and Faurer, just to mention a few.

Meanwhile she began to work with fashion photographer George Hoyningen-Huene in his darkroom in her spare time. In 1947, Avedon left her his New York City studio and assistant while he went off to Paris. She made good use of the studio, becoming an important commercial photographer, while taking fashion work for Harper's Bazaar and other publications.

But by the 1960s she tired of the direction of fashion photography and modeling, turning to personal work that had little to nothing to do with fashion. In 1969, she destroyed most of her commercial negatives, but put aside a large group of editorial negatives in trash bags, forgetting about them until the early 1990s when Martin Harrison, a fashion curator and historian who was visiting Bassman, encouraged her to take another look at them. After Bassman reviewed her earlier negatives, she began reprinting them, applying some of the bleaching and toning techniques with which she had first experimented as early as the 1940s.

Her "reinterpretations", as she called them, reignited her career as an art photographer. Bassman's work has been published in "Lillian Bassman" (1997) and "Lillian Bassman: Women" (2009). A new book, "Lillian Bassman: Lingerie," is due be published by Abrams on April 1.

Her long-time Santa Monica gallerist, Peter Fetterman, said this about his relationship with Bassman: "Whenever I arrived in New York the first thing I did was to rush round to Lillian's amazing studio on E 83rd to inspire myself for my week ahead. She would be there, dressed elegantly in a crisp white men's shirt and black pants and working away. She had a work ethic and a commitment to her art even into her 90's that was staggering. "What do you think of this one, Peter? I just finished it?" And of course my heart would start beating. "I'll make one for you". This was our usual pattern for close to 20 years. Lillian was one of the true greats. I will miss her deeply."