The current wave of nostalgia for lingerie styles of the 1950s and 1960s owes a lot to Lillian Bassman, the legendary New York fashion photographer who passed away in February at age 94.
Bassman shot many of the commercial campaigns for major brands of that era and her intimate, highly stylized boudoir portraits changed the way lingerie was both seen and appreciated.
Now, a trove of 80 of those black-and-white images, collected and curated by Bassman shortly before her death, are featured in the new book Lillian Bassman: Lingerie, released last month by Abrams Books.
To coincide with the book’s publication, an exhibition of Bassman’s lingerie prints will be on display at the Staley-Wise Gallery in New York from April 12 to May 26, and at the Peter Fetterman Gallery in Santa Monica until June 9.
Bassman eschewed the lifeless catalogue images that characterized most lingerie photography of the post-war years, focusing instead on the women in her shots and their unselfconscious sensuality. There is a narrative element in many of her portraits: small, oblique stories that hint at the inner essence of women’s lives.
Her contemporary Richard Avedon said Bassman made “visible that heartbreaking invisible place between the appearance and the disappearance of things”. The Guardian, in its obituary last month, called Bassman’s pictures “reveries about the secret lives of women.”
Bassman’s enduring legacy can be seen everywhere today.
Many of her Mad Men-era campaigns boldly showcased lingerie as fashion garments worthy of artistic presentation and meant to be displayed, not just as foundation pieces meant to be concealed and seldom seen. You can see that aesthetic sense today in the elaborate and artistic treatment of lingerie in fashion photography (both in commercial work and print editorials) and in runway shows from many of the world’s leading fashion houses.
Lillian Bassman: Lingerie is her third photo collection in book form, following Lillian Bassman (1997) and Lillian Bassman: Women (2009).
Below are selected images from Bassman’s work, courtesy of Abrams Books.