Lillian Bassman - Paul Himmel
Lillian Bassman died in New York on February 13th, 2012. She was 94 years old.
Paul Himmel died in New York on February 8th, 2009. He was 95 years old.
Lillian Bassman and Paul Himmel have been artists and lovers for over 70 years. They are fanciful, eclectic, restless, bohemien perfectionists who are overall life artists. They have lived together since she was just 15 and he 18. Both of Russian descent, they met due to their parents involvement in the same intellectual-hippy ante-litteram community in Connecticut. Their families moved to Coney Island and the teenagers became friends at a restaurant belonging to the Himmels.
Their art forms have always been connected to their personal lives, never detaching them from reality or humanity. They were married in 1935, had two children, and lived with the courage to abandon a world that no longer belonged to them. Their strength is the example to follow. Diane Arbus described them as a social couple. They just enjoyed life.
Lillian remembers when together with Richard Avedon and his first wife, Doe, they shared a seaside house off Long Island. " We would arrive by boat on Friday evening, or sometimes we took a little four-seater plane. Dick would always order two dinners- he was so hyped up by the end of a workweek, and our hotel had a bar and we would dance barefoot until four or five in the morning. We drank a lot, and would often wake up on the floor. You could swim and run on the dunes nude in those days - the whole thing was marvelous".
Lillian wanted to be an artist. She started by posing as a model for the Working Project Administration (WPA), asking to have a studio for her works. She began her studies in a school for fashion illustrators where she was fortunate enough to have her work viewed by Alexey Brodovitch. Brodovitch recognized her talent and offered her a scholarship to attend his courses at the New School. He then asked her to be his assistant at Harper's Bazaar, and later appointed her art director of Junior Bazaar.
New York was experiencing an intense cultural movement. Talented artists moved from Europe to New York, where they were able to express themselves and experiment. Among these artists was Alexey Brodovitch, who became especially talented in graphic art and was a formidable talent scout. It was in this atmosphere that Lillian began her career as a fashion photographer. Self-taught artist and art director, she used a painting technique familiar to painting. All of her models had a long neck and long fingers. Hand gestures became an important focus in her shots. In the darkroom she would do sensational works: she would treat negatives with acids so the color would fade, creating a uniquely intense, elegant black-and-white contrast. She worked with Dior in Paris and with emerging American fashion designers who loved her ability to reproduce the elegance of the dress in the shot.
Her unusual artistic style proved a disservice to her in the fashion world. She still remembers an argument from 1949 with Carmel Snow, the powerful Harper's Bazaar editor in chief, over a Robert Piguet's chiffon dress. Lillian wanted to photograph model Barbara Muellen from backlight, reflected in a mirror, giving the idea of absolute lightness, as that of a butterfly. Snow wanted a simpler shot - the dress was a chiffon column and not an insect. This is a clear example of the struggle a creative photographer endures to take on a commercial world.
The biography of Paul Himmel is much more discontented. He was an amatorial photographer who, after teaching science and biology, decided to become a fashion photographer. His first job was as assistant for Vogue, where his first set was with John Rawings for a portrait of Marlene Dietrich. He then worked for Junior Bazaar, under the art direction of Lillian, with Richard Avedon, Robert Frank, and Louis Faurer.
He attended Alexey Brodovitch's courses, developing a graphic, raw, immediate style. He was interested in the movement of the image and found in the reporting and snapshots the natural inspiration for his creations. Brodovitch said that Himmel was the only one among his students to fully understand the concept of movement.
Himmel's shots of eight ballets of the New York City Ballet truly capture this concept. They were also collected in the book "Ballet Action" published in 1954. Choreographer George Balanchine expressed in the introduction his enthusiasm in finding a photographer who created static images that gave the illusion of movement.
His family portraits were displayed in one of the first photography exhibition, "Family of a man", curated by Edward Steichen for the Museum of Modern Art, in 1955. His commercial work was highly requested, but he decided to give up and in 1969 he attended New York University, studying psychotherapy. He said he was tired of the rules imposed by costumers. A few years later, for the same reasons, his wife Lillian followed him.
Twenty years later, one of their friends found a bag containing old negatives in their dark-room. They start to print again the old pictures and their careers were back on track, with the support of curator Martin Harrison: exhibitions in international galleries, books, awards, lectures. Lillian started even to work for the New York Times Magazine, German Vogue, lo Donna, and other fashion magazines.. Her style was more appreciated than before.
A few years ago she decided to quit again. She said she could no longer understand the fashion world. She thinks models now are too young and finds it impossible to communicate with them. A fifteen-year-old model cannot wear an expensive dress and be aware of it, she says. Lillian is not disappointed or upset - she remains observant with sweet, lively, curious eyes.