Lillian Bassman's Lens: A New York Exhibition Highlights the Photographer's Intimate Portraits of Women

Lillian Bassman's "The Well-Spent Dollar, Pud, bra by Maidenform," 1956
(© Lillian Bassman, courtesy Staley-Wise Gallery, New York)

The late fashion photographer Lillian Bassman had what legendary shutterbug Richard Avedon called the skill to make “visible that heartbreaking invisible place between the appearance and the disappearance of things.” Her black-and-white photographs captured more than just beautiful women wearing bustiers and garter belts – she had the ability to turn a moment into art. Through May 26, New York’s Staley-Wise Gallery will show an exhibition of Bassman’s work, titled “Lillian Bassman: Lingerie.”

The exhibition and accompanying catalogue published by Abrams spans Bassman’s half-century-long career, displaying both photographs and contact sheets of women dressed in their most intimate garments. Bassman’s manipulation of images in the darkroom gave her photographs her signature marks: a dreamy focus and deep contrast. Her poetic flair highlighted subtle nuances that brought a graceful sense of glamour to each scene she shot. Her natural talent for chiaroscuro, the interplay of light and shadow, is evident in her work. Two photographs, separated by 58 years, show that Bassman never lost her touch – she consistently depicted the delicate silhouette of a woman’s body with careful thought and vigor.

One of the few female photographers in a predominantly male industry, Bassman helped cultivate the careers of iconic contemporaries Avedon and Robert Frank when she worked as art director at Junior Bazaar, a Harper’s Bazaar spin-off aimed at teens, in the 1940s. She soon caught the bug and began her own career in photography, shooting for Harper’s Bazaar and commercial clients like Warner’s lingerie. Bassman grew tired of fashion photography by the 1970s – the models of the ’60s, she told the New York Times, were demanding and difficult to work with – and she abandoned the genre altogether, stashing more than 100 negatives in trash bags. She turned to fine art photography until a friend discovered the discarded goods and encouraged her to revisit her past. Bassman found alternative ways to develop film, producing grainy, soft images free from editorial reins, and gathered a new generation of followers. She shot her last fashion editorial for German Vogue in 2004.

Bassman continued to shoot until right before her death in February 2012 at age 94.

Click on the slide show to see images from “Lillian Bassman: Lingerie,” on display at the Staley-Wise Gallery until May 26.