In one of the more intriguing exhibits of the summer season, rarely seen works by Lillian Bassman, one of the twentieth century's most original fashion photographers, are now on view at the Edwynn Houk Gallery on Fifth Avenue.
Like her more famous contemporaries Richard Avedon and Irving Penn, Bassman was a student of Alexey Brodovitch whom she first met at Manhattan's Textile High School from which she graduated in 1933. Few individuals have exerted as much influence on American fashion photography as Brodovitch who was employed as art director at Harper's Bazaar from 1934 to 1958. In this position he was able to share his own sense of style with the many talented photographers who worked with him. He was in this sense not so much a boss as a collaborator. It was under his direction that Bassman was able to formulate the unique look of her photography.
First and foremost, all the 35 prints on view at this exhibit exude an aura of glamour. Bassman worked with the top models of her day - including Sunny Harnett, Suzy Parker, Dovima and Lisa Fonssagrives - and posed them in tableaux that fairly reeked of wealth and sophistication. It was always made clear that the couture pieces these models wore were designed only for the privileged few, and Bassman did everything she could to emphasize this exclusivity but almost always without using any props other than the clothes themselves. Instead, the compositions are tight and the figures within them sometimes cropped by the photos' borders.
What is most interesting to a photographer is Bassman's unique style of black & white printing. Although the photographer was quite adept at using standard printing techniques in the darkroom - as can be seen from Margie Cato, New York (c. 1950) and Southwest Passage - Sunset Pink (1951) - she more often than not broke every rule of making the "normal" print. Her work exaggerates contrast to the point where detail is frequently lost, and she then pushes the effect even further through the use of selective bleaching. Often all that is left is line and form. But the effect of these manipulations, which in lesser hands would have rendered the images merely bizarre, is the creation of modernist artwork of the highest standards.
Later in her career Bassman began to use digital imaging to reimagine her earlier negatives. This is not so surprising as it might at first seem. The radical manipulations she performed in the darkroom actually prefigure the extensive retouching capabilities of programs such as Photoshop. In this sense Bassman can be seen as a pioneer who was years ahead of her time. Perhaps the most interesting photograph at the exhibit is Kronung des Chic, Jada from a 1998 issue of German Vogue that is described in the catalog as a "unique reinterpretation."
One feature of the current show that is always appreciated by photographers is the inclusion of contact sheets. There are three here, each consisting of twelve images shot with a medium format camera on 120 film. It's much easier to understand the photographer's vision when viewing these sheets and the choices she faced in making a final selection.
The exhibit continues through July 8, 2016.