Standing outside the Donna Karan boutique off Regent Street, I was greeted by a large black and white photograph of two women, delicately peering out of a New York bus, circa 1950. Their white-gloved hands rest gently on the window panes as they crane their necks, and look out from under hats, to the world outside. A violent world. A world of dirt, of sex, of crime, money, aggression and success, which they have only ever read about in their well-kept cages, and which they desperately want to see.
They felt a charge. They were posing for men.
Wearing my rucksack and jeans, I felt like one of the men those women must have been staring at, and I was now about to enter their world. I was about to step into the Lillian Bassman solo exhibition at the Donna Karan boutique, where the dresses start at £1,000 and where everything is exactly in its place.
For the first time, Bassman’s distinctive black and white fashion photographs are being shown outside of the conventional gallery context within which they are most often seen. Mixed in with the dresses, these twenty original works felt very much at home. In fact, the boutique was a gallery in itself. Every dress hung perfectly in its place, the lighting was soft, and seating luxurious.
Over time, Lillian Bassman's experimental works have revolutionised fashion photography. Vanity Fair magazine singled her out as one of photography's "grand masters." Full of mystery, sensuality, and expressionistic glamour, Bassman's dramatic black and white photographs capture private moments, and what so often appear to be memories.
Making my way through the boutique, I saw stark images resembling x-rays; hazy, dreamy images, partly in focus, partly out, often revealing, often obscured. These weren't simply fashion shots. They were images. Images of life. So often the clothes were barely visible. But a mood, or atmosphere was always present. Every frame suggested far more than it showed. I'm not talking how a bikini-clad girl invites you to see more, but how an image of a barely open door, or window, with something glittering behind, makes you literally crane your neck. There's a world in there.
A world of dirt, of sex, of crime, money, aggression and success, which they have only ever read about in their well-kept cages, and which they desperately want to see.
Bassman’s pictures belong distinctly to the era of “Mad Men” New York; the clothes have a structured beauty and gloves are mandatory. Bassman’s women appear utterly indifferent to the world around them. Moreover, the inequalities so prevalent at the time are absent. What appears instead are moments in which women are free from any expectation. They are off guard, and showing something very human.
Bassman took her most significant pictures from the late 1940s to the early 1960s. From the outset Bassman’s individual photographic style quickly singled her out as the leading photographer of her generation.
Being a woman advantaged her, Bassman felt:
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, natural, and I spent a lot of time talking to them about their husbands, their lovers, their babies.
For a glimpse into Lillian's world and to see photography well worth its place in any gallery, slip into the Donna Karan boutique off Regent Street. A rare treat well worth a visit.