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Fashion Photography Icon Lillian Bassman's Work Revealed in New Book

By Amy Zimmer | March 30, 2012 7:34am
Lillian Bassman was a famous fashion photographer and art director who grew disillusioned with fashion after the 1960s, only to be rediscovered in the 1990s.
Lillian Bassman was a famous fashion photographer and art director who grew disillusioned with fashion after the 1960s, only to be rediscovered in the 1990s.
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Lillian Bassman and Abrams Books

MANHATTAN —  Lillian Bassman worked with the real Mad Men of the 1950s and early '60s, using her keen eye for the female form to create images for some of the most iconic ad campaigns.

"Lillian Bassman: Lingerie," a book of 80 stunningly intimate black-and-white photos from her work with women in brassieres and bodices, corsets and girdles, camisoles and chemises, and nightgowns and pajamas hit the shelves this month.

The publication was just weeks after the famous art director and fashion photographer died in her Upper East Side home the age of 94 on Feb. 13.

Bassman, whose work included Maidenform's legendary dream as campaign, began revisiting and digitally manipulating her lingerie photos for the book in the winter of 2010, said her son Eric Himmel, editor-in-chief of Abrams Books, which published the book.

But Bassman's lingerie photos — along with a trove of other works — were nearly lost to the world after she decided to get out of the fashion business. In the early 1970s, she destroyed most of the negatives from her commercial career. She stashed away more than 100 editorial negatives in trash bags in the basement of her carriage house, which also housed her studio. She soon forgot about them.  

They sat untouched for 20 years.

"In fashion photography, for 99 percent of the people doing it, the art directors are your lifeline to work," Himmel said.

"When they're replaced with young people, they want to use their contemporaries. She had a great run in the 1950s, but by the early 1960s she was in her 50s, and the '60s was a decade totally obsessed with youth."

Bassman — who became the art director in 1945 for Junior Bazaar, the teen spinoff of Harper's Bazaar, where she promoted the work of the likes of Richard Avedon and Robert Frank — had a hard time finding jobs during the '60s, her son said.

"She wasn't that interested in the fashion of the '60s," Himmel said. "She valued photographing women who looked like women, not girls.

"I think she and my father [Paul Himmel] had a certain disillusionment with their careers," Eric Himmel said, noting how both of them "aggressively destroyed" a lot of their work.

Bassman's husband, who passed away in 2009, was a documentary photographer in the 1950s, who later became a psychotherapist. The two met at Coney Island when she was 6 and he was 9; her parents let her move in with him when she was 15 and they married when she was 24.

Bassman's old negatives, which at some point had moved to her home's top floor, were rediscovered in 1991 when photo historian Martin Harrison was visiting. He encouraged her to reprint them and to pick up a camera again.

She re-entered the fashion world, shooting Paris couture for the New York Times, among other jobs.

"What she recovered turned out to be important," Himmel said of the negatives that she used as a "starting point" in her second career in fine art.

"Chance played a role in what lasted and didn't," he said. " I think she ended up with enough of her past to move onto the future without being weighed down by it."

"Lingerie" is Bassman's third book, and Himmel said he and his sister are considering more projects celebrating their mother's work, such as her Paris street photos from the 1940s.

"She was always looking for projects," Himmel said. "When she didn't have a project she would get grouchy and frustrated and sink her way into a new project."

She was busy working on old photographs up until two months before she passed away, Himmel said.

When he showed her an advance copy of the book, "She wasn’t that interested in it," Himmel said. "She was always about her next project, not her last one."

An exhibition, "Lillian Bassman: Lingerie" will run from April 12 through May 26 at the Staley-Wise Gallery, 560 Broadway # 305.