Lillian Bassman has been called “The Keen of the Darkroom”, and she deserves that title!

What fascinates me about Lillian Bassman is that she reinvented her images over and over again, working on them for hours in her darkroom, experimenting with dodging, burning and masking, and creating a completely new work in the process.

Although her images start fairly straightforward (albeit beautifully composed and with already rich B&W contrasts), her editing work pushes them further and further into abstraction.

As time passes and she revisits her work again and again, her women become ethereal ghosts, their surrounding just a faint mirage.

Lillian Bassman studied painting and you can see that influence in how she uses the darkroom techniques to create her images — they have an incredible painterly and texture to them.

“The women who intrigued me [as models] had the most beautiful necks and the most responsive hand movements.” Lillian Bassman

Lillian Bassman was born in 1917 and grew up in Brooklyn and Greenwich Village, New York. She studied art and started as a photo editor before taking up a camera (a bold move for a woman at that time!). She worked for Harper’s Bazaar until the mid-60s, capturing the glamour and opulence of the couture world.

By the 70s, her style was out of favor and she decided to pursue personal projects and get rid of her archives. She unsentimentally threw away 40 years’ worth of prints and negatives! (Can you imagine? Most photographers can’t bring themselves to delete one single image! Actually, I can’t either… and I’m not a professional photographer!)

A lone bag survived and was rediscovered in the 90s, leading to a reappreciation of Lillian Bassman’s incredible talent and technical skills. Books were published, prints were made, and her images came back to the world. What a loss it would have been if that bag hadn’t escaped destruction!

Silhouette of a woman in a long black evening gown
Profile of a woman, laughing, with sunglasses and lots of necklaces
Woman seen from the back, with a large hat

Lillian Bassman made me understand and appreciate the importance and beauty of post-production and printing. Her foray into painting bears an influence on how she uses darkroom techniques to create her images. I love her work, what do you think?


© Lillian Bassman

Disclaimer: Aurelie’s Gallery does not represent Lillian Bassman. My “Photographers I love” series is purely for inspiration and to encourage discussion.