Lingerie by Lillian Bassman

28th Mar 2012


She began shooting fashion in the 1940s, moving on to her own personal projects in the 1970s when her style went out of fashion. Her work went through a revival in the 1990s, and she continued working until her death on February 13th 2012, aged 94.

This book concentrates on her lingerie images, mostly shot for Harper’s Bazaar between the late 1940s and the mid-60s. The introduction by Eric Himmel – editor-in-chief of Abrams Books and Bassman’s son – gives the modern reader some background on society at the time when these images were being created:

“In 1948 it was no mean feat to photograph a beautiful woman unselfconsciously undressed. Bassman, who has a gift for cultivating female companionship, made tests with models to gain experience and try out new ideas.”

She did a test shoot with a model who, loving the soft flowing look of the final images, showed them to her husband. As luck would have it, he was the art director of a big lingerie account which Bassman subsequently landed.

Bassman continued to shoot for magazines and companies like Warners – whose Merry Widow corselet is well known to lovers of vintage fashion – where she avoided artificial moods and locations, thus putting her models at ease.

Alongside the background details provided by Himmel, Bassman’s images take on a different meaning. At first glance, they are beautiful soft fashion images that often seem quite timeless.

However, once you realise just how different her approach was to other photographers at the time, you realise that you are looking at something very special.

A photograph that looked relaxed, unposed and intimate was quite unusual in the 1950s. Especially if the subject was wearing only lingerie.

In fact, lingerie modelling itself was somewhat frowned upon as the 50s began and so models posed to obscure their faces. Bassman once commented on the chemistry between model and photographer:

“The models thought about this a lot. It was a sexually very different thing when they worked with men. They felt a charge. They were posing for men. I caught them when they were relaxed and natural. I spent a lot of time talking to them about their husbands, their lovers, their babies.”

This shows in the images throughout this title. The models are comfortable and confident. They are not trying to be sexy, they just are. At the back of the book, there is even a further glimpse into Bassman’s way of working with a handful of shots of her behind the camera and gently directing a model.

The images are mostly from the late 40s and early 50s, but the book also features some of Bassman’s lingerie work from the 1960s and even a couple of shots for Gossard Ultrabra taken in 1997. Sometimes it’s tricky to tell when they were taken until you refer to the index.

This is a beautiful collection of photographs, which are certainly worthy of their own book. They show a different side of fashion photography, the work of a woman who changed the way lingerie was photographed and also how it was viewed by magazines and advertisers, making it a must-have book for anyone interested in photography or vintage lingerie.

Published this month by Abrams, Lillian Bassman: Lingerie is available in hardback now for £12.99.

Rating: 4/5

Recommended for: Lingerie lovers, photography fanatics, vintage vixens and those who like a glimpse into the working life of a woman who brought something a little different to fashion magazines in the 50s and 60s.

Other recommended reading: Hidden Underneath: A History of Lingerie by Farid Chenoune would be ideal if you liked the snippets of history in Eric Himmel’s introduction and wanted more.

The Photography Book edited by Ian Jeffrey would be perfect for those wanting to expand their photographic knowledge, and The Golden Age of Couture edited by Claire Wilcox will make anyone interested in 1950s fashion simply swoon.

Guest post by Lori Smith of BitchBuzz and Rarely Wears Lipstick