When Lillian Bassman showed her drawings to famed art director Alexey Brodovitch, he offered her a spot in his popular Design Laboratory, a class that covered magazine layout and photography, among other esthetic subjects. The class led to an internship, and then a job as art director of Junior Bazaar, where Bassman hired photographers including Richard Avedon, Arnold Newman, and Robert Frank. But as she recalled in an interview shortly before her death in 2012, “I went to see Brodovitch, complaining that I didn’t want to be an art director…I realized that I could never focus on one page and lay it out. I was so used to doing a whole flow, so I was grousing, I guess, and he said, ‘Why not become a photographer Lillian?'” So she did—her first photos were published in Bazaar in 1947, and her run as a fashion photographer stretched throughout the 1960s—she became known for a distinctive, high contrast look with a graphic, illustrative quality, the result of toning, bleaching and working with tissue papers in the darkroom.
Bassman left photography and destroyed much of her work in the 1970s. “Towards the end I didn’t have such a great experience with Harper’s Bazaar, because they discovered that I could make an uninteresting outfit or a not very expensive dress look good, so I got all the junk in the magazine,” she said. But she rediscovered a box of negatives in the 1990s, and began reworking the images. An exhibition of her work, on view at Edwynn Houk Gallery in New York City in a show extended until July 15, collects more than 30 prints that trace her development, from early vintage prints to those she re-interpreted. Writes the gallery in a statement, “Known for blurred silhouettes, exaggerated gestures, and unusual compositions, Bassman’s photographs illustrate the mystery and glamour of the modern woman.” In her own way, “she introduced a new aesthetic and revolutionized fashion photography.”