17 July 2009

Lillian Bassman: Capturing Intimacy

Personal Touch, 1948. Photograph © Lillian Bassman.

I am not a big proponent of fashion photography. Mostly I view it as a waste of talent that might be more usefully deployed for other purposes. But sometimes it is actively problematic in one or another way. I've spent some time here discussing such work. That said, this astute article on Lillian Bassman and her work appears in The New York Times today. Two passages in the article caught my attention. The first identifies the difference between Bassman's work and the fashion photography that emerged in the 1960s: "Hers was a world of adult sexuality that wasn’t ranted about. " And then there is this characterization of her work from the 40s and 50s.
"In the period dominated by Avedon and Irving Penn, Ms. Bassman was one of the few female photographers in the fashion business, and her work had a distinctly different cast from the outset, one less distancing. In most of the lingerie pictures, for example, the faces are averted or obscured, the result of the Ford agency’s insistence that its models not be identifiable in such provocative advertising. The effect of this constraint is not cold anonymity but an unusual intimacy that leaves the images feeling almost entirely divorced from commodity, as if they were the visual entries in the personal journals of the women photographed."
And for those who chimed in to the recent fracas about diversity in the photo industry [1] [2] [3] to insist that what counts is "the work" and not the race, gender, or whatever of the photographer ~ well, The Times correspondent - Ginia Bellafante - argues that it was precisely her gender that allowed Bassman to capture the images she did. No surprise.

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