Lillian Bassman Colleen Yang

Background: Born on June 15th, 1917, Lillian Bassman was a photographer, art director, and painter. Lillian was born into an immigrant family that supported free-thinking and decision making. With this support from her family, she grew up with the mindset that allowed her to be the independent and unconventional person that she was. At age 6, she met the son of her mom's boss, Paul Himmel, who was 9 years old at the time. They became close friends and eventually got married. They stayed together for 73 years until his passing in 2009.

Career: Lillian Bassman was studying to be a fashion illustrator, at a vocational school, when she enrolled in a design class with Alexey Brodovitch, a photographer, designer, and instructor who was widely known being the art director of Harper's Bazaar. Brodovitch was very impressed with Bassman's skills and he encouraged her to switch to graphic design. He later invited her to become one of his assistants. At first, it was an unpaid position but with her negotiations, Bassman became Brodovitch's first paid female assistant. She persevered living and working in a man's world, which allowed her to break the norms and create her own unique style.

Later, when Harper's Bazaar launched their teen magazine, Junior Bazaar, Bassman was promoted to co-art director. Here, she had the opportunity to work with photographers like Richard Avedon and Robert Frank, who became her inspirations. From then on, Bassman began working consistently in the darkroom. She could be found developing and manipulating other people's works. She began to play with gauze, bleach, and tissue paper during the developing and printing process. This allowed her to create her unique style that seems very illustrated and "abstract-like."

Photography: When Avedon left to France, he gave Bassman the keys to his studio and darkroom. Here, she had the opportunity to explore and experiment to her heart's content. As soon as Junior Bazaar launched, she knew that photography was her route. She began shooting anything to get her feet wet, but it was really lingerie that caused her to see peaks in her work. She began working with the regular fashion models, usually slightly overweight women in lingerie, with their heads cut off to hide their identity. Bassman eased her clients and models in by asking them questions about their lives, dreams, and husbands or boyfriends. This in turn allowed her to capture strength, femininity, and yet, some vulnerability. Through all of this, she was able to gain traffic from advertisers.

Elements and Principle: There are many values in her photos, even though black and white are the only colors. She utilizes space well. Although the subject is a prominent aspect of her photographs, she doesn't fill the entire image with her subject. She uses balance very well, when manipulating her image. There are some softer edges and parts but there are some bolder blacks that balance the image out.

Later Life: Bassman eventually grew sick of the direction in which the fashion photography industry was going. She viewed that the models were becoming superstars and "dictating rather that taking direction." She destroyed almost all of her work and switched her focus to abstract fine art photography. Some examples of subjects that she photographed were cracks in sidewalks, fruits and veggies, and even some reflections.

Up until her death in 2012, at age 94, Bassman stayed experimenting. She used new digital tools like cameras, printers, and software. She even loved Photoshop. She utilized the different challenges that were thrown her way and embraced them. Bassman was a huge influence on many women photographers and she changed the world of fashion photography.


Unconsciously Graceful: Lillian Bassman. (2016, April 02). Retrieved March 28, 2017, from

Google Images

Report Abuse

If you feel that this video content violates the Adobe Terms of Use, you may report this content by filling out this quick form.

To report a Copyright Violation, please follow Section 17 in the Terms of Use.