Lingerie & Art: Lillian Bassman

Lillian Bassman, Self-portrait, 1999

Lillian Violet Bassman was an American photographer with an interesting live, and an even more interesting work. She was the daughter of a couple of Jewish intellectuals who settled in New York in 1905. She and her sister grew up in quite a bohemian and free environment, and Lillian started going to Art museums at a very young age. When she was six, she met the love of her life, the photographer Paul Himmel, who was 9 at a time. They used to go to museums together, and Lillian never forgot the influence of the classic art masters, which can be recognised on some details of her photography (the long necks, the position of the head, etc.).  At the age of 15, she and Paul moved together and got married soon after that, remaining together for the rest of their life.

Harper’s Bazaar, 1947, Lillian Bassman

Lillian was studying fashion illustration when her design teacher, Alexey Brodovitch, realized her potential and asked her to become one of his assistants. But Mr.Brodovitch wasn’t just a design teacher; he was also the art director at Harper’s Bazaar magazine, where Bassman became the first paid female assistant. When Harper’s launched Junior Bazaar in 1945, she was promoted to co-art director and began working with some of the greatest photographers of the time. She began to experiment in the darkroom with different techniques to manipulate the look of the images, so her photography style became more abstract and pictorial.

It’s a Cinch: Carmen, New York, Harper’s Bazaar, 1951, Lillian Bassman
Fashion study for Harper’s Bazaar, 1951, Lillian Bassman
Lillian Bassman, Lingerie, 1951

When Junior Bazaar closed, she worked as a photographer in a variety of fields, but her lingerie shots made her stand out. The lingerie ads of that era consisted of slightly overweight women with their heads cut off, but Bassman changed that completely: she insisted on using the same models who worked for fashion photoshots, and although most of the time she was told to conceal the identity of the models, she did so by playing with the shadows or the posture of the body.

The Mold of the Princess- Everything Black and Lacy, model unknown, lingerie by Lily of France, Harper’s Bazaar, 1954, Lillian Bassman
Shaped and Supple, Alicia Mendoza, corselet by Warner’s, 1954, Lillian Bassman

She wanted her models to feel confident and relaxed, so she asked them about their life, families or friends. Bassman also used to ask her male assistant lo leave while the photoshot was taking place, in order to preserve the intimacy between both women, the photographer and the photographed. Bassman wanted her images to depict highly feminine, strong women, but somewhat vulnerable at the same time.

Model unknown, lingerie by Lily of France, 1955, Lillian Bassman
Advertisement for La Roche, early 1950’s, Lillian Bassman

Bassman’s lingerie shots made her fame grow and she worked for more than 25 years in fashion photography. But, in 1969, she decided she had had enough: she didn’t like some of the new directions that the fashion industry was taking, like the use of excessively young models or the progressive lack of freedom that, according to her, was threatening the photographer. So, she tossed out most of her fashion negatives and copies and decided to focus on personal projects for a while. Twenty years later, Bassman and her husband were cleaning up the basement when their friend Martin Harrison, an historian and art curator, found there two garbage bags filled with old negatives.

Warner’s advertisement, 1957, Lillian Bassman


Next to Nothing…, New York, 1948, Lilian Bassman

Harrison managed to convince Bassman to recover her old shots, now that she wasn’t working for a fashion magazine anymore. She let her creativity run free and edited those negatives using both old and modern techniques, like photoshop. Her friend Harrison curated some exhibition of her photos all around the US and Europe, and Bassman’s work began to be re-appreciated in the 1990s. Today, she is regarded as one of the greatest fashion photographers of our time, and many artists and designers have publicly stated their admiration for her photos… specially for her lingerie shots. 😉

The Line Lengthens: Model Unknown, Lingerie by Lily of France, 1955, Lillian Bassman

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