8 Photography Ideas Based on Lillian Bassman’s Work

You can learn a lot by looking at what others are doing. This time we’re looking at the photographer Lillian Bassman. (1917-2012)

A short intro about Lillian’s work

When she worked as a young designer at the magazine Harper’s Bazaar she started to experiment with photographs in the darkroom. A few years later she picked up the camera herself and worked for 25 years as a fashion photographer. After this she decided to quit, she didn’t enjoy working with the models anymore. “I got sick of them,” she said. “They were becoming superstars. They weren’t my kind of models. They were dictating rather than taking direction.” 

She binned a lot of her work en started to work on abstract photography. When she rediscovered some of her fashion-work in the nineties she started to experiment with them and published the results. By then she was 80 years old and got a lot of recognition for her work. After this she kept experimenting and even learned to use Photoshop.

1. Look for images that inspire you.

Ask yourself what makes the photos you love so special and bring those elements back into your own work.

“I spent my life in the museums, studying the old masters, (…) elegance goes back to the earliest paintings. Long necks. The thrust of the head in a certain position. The way the fingers work, fabrics work. It’s all part of my painting background.”

Lillian was often inspired by paintings. She visited museums on a regular basis to find ideas and to learn from them.

“The women who intrigued me [as models] had the most beautiful necks and the most responsive hand movements. At one point, I found El Greco, and that elongated look became my way of seeing.”

Below you see a painting by El Greco. If Lillian would not have encoutered El Greco’s work, I think her photos would not have turned out the way they did. We really need to keep looking around us for different ways of looking and doing things.

2. Have a vision

“[When I photograph] I project what I’m not. What I would like to be.”

What do you want your photos to look like? What do you not want to see?

Lillian’s goal was to photograph the women as natural as possible. She wanted mostly to capture the emotion. Even in a fashion-shoot.

“It is part of the nature of a woman to be unconsciously graceful,” She said. “She has beautiful flowing movements of arms and hips. In running the carpet sweeper, putting up her hair or looking out of a window, there is grace, but it usually passes unnoticed in everyday life. I try to record that natural grace with the camera.”

If you know what you’re looking for, it’s easier to capture the right moment, and you’ll be more satisfied with them. Without a vision you’ll make too many photograph and won’t know which to choose afterwards.

3. Choose a camera/lens that fits your style of photography

The Rolleiflex was Lillian’s favorite camera. With it she could easily walk around and make photographs without being noticed much. This was very important for her. She wanted her models to feel at ease while she was looking for the perfect posture or movement.

What is your style? What is important to you?
If you don’t know, look at photographers who you admire and find out what gear they use.
Find a camera + lens that you love and works well for your purpose and use that a lot. Work with it as though it’s the only option you’ve got. This will make you creative. Every camera works, just keep practising.

4. You don’t necessarily need to have a lot of technical knowledge on photography to be a good photographer.

Lillian was not a fan of the technical aspects of photography. She eventually learned to work with lights and light-meters, but mostly she was just looking for her own way of photographing and became quite successful.

These days there are so many possibilities in photography. So many tools to use, it can be overwhelming and demotivating. Try to hold on to your vision and just practise a lot, you will learn the technical skills with time if needed.

5. Bring your ideas to the next level by editing them

“Well, that feeling of creating a kind of… maybe I shouldn’t say, but… cocoon… a kind of spatial entity for every model aside from a realistic background… that happened in the darkroom. I developed it in the taking of the photograph and then I took it further in the dark room, where I worked with different chemicals and brushes. Sort of “paint designery” on a sheet of photographic paper.” 

De photos of Lillian are unique because she spend a lot of time editing them. These days editing is much easier, there are many apps and tools we can use. If you like to, experiment with them, find your own way. Search for the look that suits you and your vision.

6. Experiment

From the beginning, even before she became a photographer, Lillian experimented with photos. And she kept doing so. Even when she was in her eighties she learned to use Photoshop and worked with printers.

Try to experiment and play around as well. During your photo shoot and afterwards. Have fun and try new things

7. Explain to your models what your ideas are

During a shoot Lillian tried to explain her vision to the model, what kind of feeling she wanted to depict. Lillian showed what kind of gestured went well with it. If the model has no idea of your vision, they probably won’t do what you’d like them to do. Share you ideas, be clear to the model and you’ll have a better result.

Patience is another thing Lillian recommends. She explained things to them regularly and took ample time for her shoots. When things go differently than you hoped, try to work with what you’ve got. Don’t get angry or irritated, just quietly keep going and keep your eyes open.

8. Make your models feel comfortable

Portrait session can be awkward at times, especially at the beginning. It takes time to get used to each other. To make sure her models would feel at ease, Lillian would ask about their lives, spouses, children and future dreams and get to know them during the shoot.

“We didn’t have music, but i danced, i danced in front of the camera.” Lillian said. She did what the model was doing as well and that made them both more comfortable. By showing you’re enjoying it yourself, the other will more easily participate.

My turn

To put all this knowledge to the test I tried these things on myself, because there was no one around. I used my phone and photoshop and these were the results:

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Super cool die laatste twee foto’s! :-)