The Incandescence of Lillian Bassman


What you need to know about Lillian Bassman is this.

Like the mythical firebird, she endures. In trying to describe what she captures on celluloid, the word “incandescence” fills my thoughts. So ethereal and fragile are her images, one gets the feeling they could disintegrate through the sheer magnitude of their unutterable beauty.

This remarkable woman, now in her 90s, is working with digital technology and abstract color photography to create a whole new paradigm. She is, indisputably, one of the last great woman photographers in the world of fashion.


Like women of her generation, Bassman worked in the shadows. From the 1940s until the 1960s, she yeomaned as a fashion photographer for Junior Bazaar and later at Harper’s Bazaar, promoting the careers of photographers like Richard Avedon, Robert Frank, Louis Faurer and Arnold Newman. Under the guidance of the Russian emigrant Alexey Brodovitch, she began to photograph her model subjects primarily in black and white and was published in Harper’s Bazaar, between 1950-1965.

What’s most notable about her approach are the high contrasts between light and dark, the graininess of the finished photos and the geometric placement and camera angles of the subjects. Consummate glamor at its finest.


Yet by the 1970’s the fleeting tenets of fashion declared her “out of vogue,” and in a fit of defiance, she abandoned fashion photography in pursuit of her own projects, tossing out forty years worth of negatives and prints — her life’s work. In one of those unexplained and baffling mysteries that vex and bewilder, a forgotten bag filled with hundreds of images turned up nearly twenty years later. With that discovery came the rediscovery of Bassman and her historical photographic heritage and in the 1990’s, like the mythical phoenix, she dusted off the ashes of extinction and oblivion, restoring her life and legacy.

Past Bassman features and images: Here and here.



Lillian Bassman “Women”
Staley Wise, Manhattan
October 23 – November 28, 2009


Lillian Bassman “Women”
Peter Fetterman, Santa Monica
October 7 – March 7, 2010


Book available through Amazon.


“Margy Cato, Test Shoot, O,” 1950s, Lillian Bassman.




~ by eaesthete on 10/10/09.

2 Responses to “The Incandescence of Lillian Bassman”

  1. Wonderful! I didn’t know of her until your piece. Off to find out more right away.

  2. Again you knock me over with such a wonderful subject.

    On Bassman’s discarding of her works, I admit to having discarded a substantial number of works from my portfolio – during one of those earthless moments of self-doubt. Alas, they are gone forever, unless…ah! I should only wish myself so luckyas MS. Bassman.

    As for her tenacity at 90 – yes, yes and yes!

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