Born in 1917, Lillian Bassman is most celebrated for her grainy, black and white photographic work. Featured in Harper’s Bazaar Magazine between 1950-1965, her work with models focused on high contrasts and form. Her creative objective focused on pure form. However, when popular tastes in fashion photography changed, Bassman discarded 40 years of negatives and prints. One misplaced bag of 100 images survived. Today, Bassman is recognized as one of the great women fashion photographers and is still working.
Throughout the 20th century, the world of fashion has had a contentious evolution. Both celebrated for it’s aesthetics and criticized for its bourgeoisie decadence, fashion remains one of the most popular and common forms of cultural representation. In this instance, culture is defined as the attitude and behavior characteristics of a particular social group. While it is easy to comment that the attitude reflected in fashion is the starvation of culture, this reduction is a bit too easy.
Existentialism rose from the ruins of two world wars and set the stage for surrealism, deconstruction, and post-modernism. Through the knowledge of mass destruction and global culpability, the question of meaning was desperately explored within the realms of art, religion, philosophy, and other representations of cultural identity. Deconstruction destabilized meaning, but also provided an almost religious assuredness that the center is never stable. As if this instability assured a conceptualization of existence beyond the ability of humans—the religious function of the psyche found an outlet through the labors of theory.
However, while existentialism, or the quest for meaning, has been simultaneously nihilistic and the origin of great creativity, there is another factor that has shaped the last 100 years—globalization. The great American experiment has now passed the two hundred year mark and cultures have now been, not only blended, but forgotten. The fusion of races, traditions, and languages have created a clean palate to adopt and discard the trappings of culture. Americans can be everything or nothing in a simple change of the wardrobe.
In this example, we are going to be looking at Postculturalism as a theory directly related to globalization. In a community set in a densely cultural environment the traditions, expectations, and socio-economic positions have been established over hundreds (if not thousands of years). An individual is not introduced as someone who has existed within one lifetime, rather they are recognized as the son, or daughter, of thus and thus person, who is in turn related to another individual. Everyone is family, the community dictates behavior, and history is remembered.
In Postculturalism, the socio-economic boundaries are broken enabling more opportunity. The lack of a genealogical introduction enables quick movement between economic classes. However, it also means the deterioration of expectations and lifestyle. The concept of the lifespan as shared within a community follows set rituals. Whether that knowing the time to eat during the day, the season to eat ice cream, or the rites of passage into different epochs, the expectations are clearly available. This availability serves a psychological objective in providing a known framework, a system of initiation, and a guide for interactions. In contrast, a Postcultural society must either cull customs from a variety of backgrounds, or, more like, is left to find a framework from a system unrelated to culture—which is usually nestled closely to capitalism.
Leading us back into the phenomenon of fashion photography. Photography has served many functions since it’s invention. Ranging from a bureaucratic tool to high art, photography is both a method and a form of expressionism. In the case of fashion photography, the line between commercialism and art is often blended. The goal of fashion is to sell clothes. To sell clothes, there must be a reason to buy clothes. Fashion is not utilitarian and is fueled by desire. Clothes are a traditional expression of culture and personal identity. Our industry within a community is recognized by what we wear (butcher, baker, candlestick maker), and likewise an individual with the finest clothes is more important than an individual with poorer accessories. We all desire quality in life, and clothes are symbolic of our goals and achievements.
However, in a Postcultural society identity is not established through a cultural history. Which makes fashion an extremely necessary outlet for defining individual identity. A person who is in fashion, has more economic resources, and is therefore identified as being more significant within the social hierarchy. However, fashion is not just branding, it is the artistic development of “looks.” Here is where photography becomes more than a tool for communicating merchandise. The creative aspects of fashion photography create a scene that the viewer desires to identify with. The reenactment, or interaction, with changing fashions is one method to create a persona where prior content does not limit possibilities.
In looking at the photography of Lillian Bassman, we must question the appeal, but also the challenges of her images. Her photography is intensely interested in form, geometry, and high-grainy contrast. When we look at her images, we are looking through a window into another world. The world is attractive, but deeply psychological. The narrative is complex and not always neat. The extreme black and white contrast does not compromise in communicating emotion, tension, and intrIgue. The content that Bassman conveys works within the forum of fashion photography, but the physical identities that she designs convey more about our interior landscapes. Her emphasis on form took her into creative realms that the fashion content was unable to follow. Leading her to find other forums of expression outside of the industry, but also establishing her legacy as a fashion photographer who had much to say to an audience unprepared to listen.
This is a link to Lillian Bassman’s photography as featured in the New York Times.