Photographer Lillian Bassman, known for her intimate, ethereal portraits of models in the 1940s through the mid-’60s, died Monday at her home in Manhattan. She was 94.
Widely counted among the greatest female fashion photographers, Bassman got her start under Alexey Brodovitch at Harper’s Bazaar in 1941. She continued working at the magazine and its Junior Bazaar spinoff as an art director and staff photographer through 1965.
“Through Lillian’s lens, a photograph became a sensual work of art, conveying the movement and mystery of the woman of style,” Glenda Bailey, editor-in-chief of Harper’s Bazzar, said in a statement this week.
By the 1970s, Bassman became disillusioned with her place in the industry and abandoned fashion photography, famously destroying many of her negatives.
A trash bag full of her surviving work was rediscovered 20 years later, leading to new assignments and solo photo exhibitions. Around that time, she met gallery owner Peter Fetterman.
“Whenever I went to New York, I would first go see Lillian because I would be inspired for my whole trip,” Fetterman said. “There she was at that age, always creating, always re-evaluating, always searching.”
Known for her experimental darkroom techniques, Bassman would often blur and bleach her black-and-white images until they resembled charcoal drawings or paintings. Later in her life, she embraced digital photography and taught herself Photoshop.
Working in a male-dominated industry, she developed a unique vision and style. Her images inspired designers such as John Galliano and Alexander McQueen while paving the way for a generation of female photographers.
Shana Darnell, a photo editor at Turner Broadcasting, remembers when she first discovered Bassman’s work, which bridged the gap between her interests in photography and illustration.
Throughout the ’90s, Darnell was an aspiring fashion photographer. While it was still rare for a woman to be behind the camera, she says she was inspired by Bassman’s self-determination.
“I think the fact that she persevered against the odds gave women photographers more drive to succeed and participate in the industry,” she said. “She lent a perspective to fashion photography that had not been widely seen.”
A retrospective exhibition of Bassman’s photographs, planned before her death, will open March 10 at the Peter Fetterman Gallery in Los Angeles.
“I think she’s one of the most important photographers of elegance,” Fetterman said. “She captured a sophistication that you very rarely see in contemporary photography.”
- Brett Roegiers, CNN