Lillian Bassman is hard to define: a pioneering fashion photographer who objected to the politicization of the 1960s, an artist who destroyed all her own work, a free-thinker who objected to the women's movement.
Lillian Bassman was a prominent fashion phographer from the 40s- to the early 60s' -New York's "Mad Men" heyday, in a time when women stars were rare. As a profile in today's Times explains, working with Harper's Bazaar, Bassman brought a new aesthetic to editorial work that came, she says, from the fact that models didn't have to play to men when they worked with her, and as such the sexuality she showcased was softer, more natural, more comfortable. Her commercial advertising work was equally influential: whereas lingerie photography had centered around a "pharmeceutical aesthetic" that emphasized underpinnings' ability to bind and correct, Ms. Bassman made it something sexy. As the Times puts it, "In place of heavy-set women constraining themselves in what was essentially equipment, Ms. Bassman deployed immeasurably lithe models, conveying a world in which women seemed to linger in the pleasures of their own sensuality. In her eye the undergarment emerges as a wardrobe unto itself, as if anything else in a woman's closet were simply an imposition."
While mentally one might add "for good or ill" this contradiction - of on the one hand creating an aesthetic that arguably imprisons women to this day, and on the other, emphasizing female sexuality - is characteristic of Bassman's career. Her famous decision to destroy her photographic archive in the 1970s is the most obvious example of this. Having devoted her career to documenting and creating an image of sophisticated adult womanhood, she was dismayed by what she perceived as the girlish fashions of the mod era and, later, the heavy-handed sexuality of the later decade. She also disliked the egos and demands of the new breed of supermodel, which ran counter to her concept of photographer as creator. In an act of both defiance and mourning, then, she destroyed the bulk of her negatives and threw the rest into a garbage bag in the garage.
What might be seen as reflexive conservatism is perhaps strange given Bassman's own history: while she may not have seen a place for herself in the new era of "liberation," her own history had been highly unconventional: with her immigrant parents' permission, she'd lived with her boyfriend from the age of fifteen, not marrying for ten years. Yet she disliked the trappings of the women's movement and apparently wanted no part of an industry she'd helped open to other women.
It's only recently, in her 90s, that her views have softened; as new technology has become available, Bassman's set about trying to resurrect some of her old images, using the discarded negatives and working with archived images and photoshop, a challenge she apparently enjoys. And there is a renewed interest in her work: the next year sees the publication of the book Lillian Bassman: Women
, two gallery shows and a retrospective in Germany. The exhibitions will feature her commercial work, her reworked images and some of her non-fashion photography.
In all these showcases, the focus is on the artist in relation to her primary subject, women. Which begs the question of her legacy as a female artist - and even a feminist. While she doesn't invite the debate to the same extent, in some ways Bassman's case provokes some of the same controversy as does Helen Gurley Brown's. Both were bold women succeeding on guts in a man's world - and, in giving the treatment of women a modern and feminine slant, still working essentially for the male gaze. More strikingly, both seemed more wedded to these compromises and an earlier, more glamorous vision of femininity, than in the gains they helped earn. There is certainly a case to be made as Bassman as stealth female advocate: as the Times puts it,
In the period dominated by Avedon and Irving Penn, Ms. Bassman was one of the few female photographers in the fashion business, and her work had a distinctly different cast from the outset, one less distancing. In most of the lingerie pictures, for example, the faces are averted or obscured, the result of the Ford agency's insistence that its models not be identifiable in such provocative advertising. The effect of this constraint is not cold anonymity but an unusual intimacy that leaves the images feeling almost entirely divorced from commodity, as if they were the visual entries in the personal journals of the women photographed.
But whatever the aesthetic triumphs, was the illusion of "divorce from commodity" altogether a positive thing? Now, I'm not saying this was Bassman's responsibility - she was a commercial photographer doing gorgeous work, and undoubtedly shot women with uncommon sensitivity. Her concerns, as is clear from her actions of the 1970s, were aesthetic. I pose it more to those who'd position her less ambiguously than she positioned herself. Her decision to sexualize lingerie, after all, and redefine its models as sexual objects - a triumph for feminine sensuality, perhaps, but can anyone claim this was a purely beneficial act? Especially given her contribution to narrowing aesthetic standards. Again, this is no criticism of her work, but merely questions that I think need be asked about any contributor to the popular aesthetic. At the end of the day, it seems pretty clear that Lillian Bassman would choose to be viewed as a photographer, and a professional - and I'm happy to pay her that compliment.
Femininity, Salvaged [NY Times]