Lillian Bassman is known for her modernising influence on the post-war fashion industry. At once a fashion photographer and art editor at Harper’s Bazaar, she was renowned for her high-contrast images of contemporary society women, actresses, and models, whom she photographed through the 1950s to 70s. Atlas Gallery celebrates her legacy in their exhibition Redefining Fashion.
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Lillian Bassman took her leave from the fashion industry in 1970, when she became disillusioned by the new breed of ‘supermodels’, who she felt dictated rather than took direction. She did, however, return to her work in the 1990s, recovering a number of negatives and making a series of reinterpretations that took the expressionistic quality in her work to new heights. At the time of her death in 2012, at the age of 94, Bassman’s work had regained traction. The success of her reinterpretations procured her several high-profile commissions, one for the New York Times magazine in 1996, and another for Vogue in 2004.
Bassman argued that the key to her success was that women were able to relax with her and open up about their lives; “they never had to seduce me in the way they had to seduce men”. Her photographs therefore have a power to them that remained largely unseen in other works taken at the time, greatly contributing to what was described as Bassman’s ‘modernising influence’. The women in her photographs are self-contained, visibly enjoying their own space and presence.
Another modernizing factor in Bassman’s work was the editing techniques she used. In the 1990s, she accentuated the stylised vision she had explored in her early career. Her prints are developed in high contrast, and are over-exposed, abstract, luminous, soft yet captivatingly dramatic. The models are silhouettes, consumed by blankets of light and darkness, with only a whisper of their features visible. In this sense, Bassman resists objectifying the models, showing only an impression of them, and subverting the male gaze without losing the female form.
By Sarah Roberts
Lillian Bassman: Redefining Fashion
27 February - 18 April 2020
Atlas Gallery, 49 Dorset Street, London W1U 7NF