Lillian Bassman / The Darkroom of Loewe

lillian-bassman-nyc-1999 by Abe Frajndlich
Click image to go to Daily Metal site.

 

There is no other place as enticing as LOEWE to enhance the retrospective of an artist whose magnitude can’t be hold in a merely cold grey room of any gregarious museum. Gathered in a tantalizing atmosphere, the admission is opened to all those who feel the necessity to recreate in the eye of a beauty seeker.

The descent way down to the exhibition is a short longitudinal axis that leads us to another dimension, right there, in the basement of the temple of luxury; so, when leaving the place, one might even get the impulse of crossing oneself, as if attending to a ceremonial of silence and respectful mindfulness.

Loewe’s foundation is taking part in the XVII edition of PhotoEspaña, hosting Lillian Bassman’s exhibition Brushstrokes, paying tribute this way to the photographer’s work and legacy and her particular sense of image which created the basis of modern fashion photography. The exhibition in Madrid will run until the 31st of August, and it will then move to the Loewe Gallery in Barcelona (from the 8th September to the 9th of November).

Lillian Bassman (1917-2012), was born in Brooklyn and grew up in the Bronx. She was the daughter of Russian Jews who emigrated to the United States in 1905. She graduated from the Textile High School in Manhattan in 1933 and studied painting and dance, both disciplines that would largely influence her work. She got married in 1935 to Paul Himmel, whith whom she lived and worked for 77 years. In 1940, she joined Alexey Brodovitch’s team, in the art department at Harper´s Bazaar and re-emerged in the early ’90s as a fine-art photographer, rescued by Martin Harrison and hired by Neiman Marcus and The New York Times. At the age of 80, being fascinated by the new possibilities of technology, Lillian embraced digital photography and introduced the use of Photoshop to her technique. She died two years ago, at her home in Manhattan, at the age of 94.

Her most remarkable differentiation from other fashion editors of the 1940s and 50s, was the rejection of representing models literally, as simple figures, choosing to represent instead the interaction with the background and space around them. At the time, this conception was quite transgressive, as publications used to feature models as if wrapped like static columns, in stiffness, under a gaze focused on something that seems to vanish fear away. Bassman brought lightness and sophistication to a previously rigid style to advertise clothes, jewellery, tobacco and beauty products. Mentoring was also one of her contributions to the industry, as she promoted the career of many young photographers, including Robert Frank, Louis Faurer, Arnold Newman, and Richard Avedon.

As you walk through the exhibition, there is an artwork of lingerie that immediately catches your attention, as it brings together those elements of the quintessential modern feminine images. If we think about the 40’s and 50’s lingerie expressions, women appeared constraining themselves in a kind of aseptical look, hieratic and frivolous. However, she set all that aside, to propose a new sensually explicit attitude, slightly repressed but never entirely concealed. Far from the overt sexuality of these days, it was somehow a transition point and a signature of the photographer, who expressed her intimate view of underwear in a whole new perspective. It is precisely the shooting of lingerie what made her name as fashion photographer.

A portrait in the center of the hall projects the immediate recognition of her long-necked models, the thrust of the head in a certain position, the way the fingers work, the ethereal dresses creating floating movements… as if a Degas graceful dancer was suddenly converted into an opaque aristocrat who lit a cigarette whilst experimenting emotional dejection, in a reflexive tone, always in the most exquisite manners, reassuring themselves in an elegant attitude. Barbara Mullen and Suzy Parker knew how to adopt those poses, naturally implemented, embodying the main themes of the artist´s imaginary.

We can also appreciate her interest in the technique, the treatment of images and the production process by careful darkroom manipulation, bringing selected areas of a picture into focus. She wanted to create a new kind of vision to project “what I’m not, but what I would like to be”, said the artist.

Other photographs showcased at Loewe such as Seduzioni d’ Autore or Night Bloom, also reflect her painting background, presenting this sense of composition and balance, very much influenced by El Greco, whose reminiscences are obvious when elongating figures and reinterpreting the contrived images of late Mannerism in transition to a more experienced existence. She was affected by the painter of the invisible, and so her work is imbued with a halo of spirituality making visible those details of the apparently unnoticed reality.

Loewe’s Foundation has magnified Bassman’s imposing works in a brief but intense view of the most representative photographs that presents the true essence of her work, where all kind of clichés about her figure are thankfully avoided, focusing instead on the artist’s language, delicate yet serious in her themes, in a certain sense of drama, of the “mistress of the darkroom”.

 

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