Lillian Bassman: Women @Staley-Wise

JTF (just the facts): A total of 26 black and white images, framed in either black or white (with or without mats), and hung in the winding main gallery space, the back viewing room, and the reception area. The recent prints are executed in three different processes: pigment, palladium-platinum, and gelatin silver. There are 20 pigment prints, either from 1950s/1960s negatives or from more recent 1990s/2000s negatives, in editions of 25. These prints range in size from approximately 30×40 up to 42×62, with many intermediate/individual sizes. There are 5 palladium-platinum prints, again either from the 1950s or the 1990s, in editions of 15. All of these prints are 26×30. And there is one gelatin silver print, from the 1950s, in an edition of 25. It is 20×24. The monograph of this show (published by Abrams) is available from the gallery for $50. (Installation shots at right.)

Comments/Context: One of the great mysteries of photography is how the character of an image changes in relation to its printed size. While preferences between big and small vary, it’s clear that the impact of an intimate picture will be undeniably transformed when blown up to wall sized proportions. Most contemporary photographers have experimented with big prints at one time or another (to hold the wall with the same authority as paintings of the same size), and many have come to the conclusion that bigger is generally better, within some limits, especially if they are targeting contemporary art collectors, rather than those primarily interested in traditional photography.
In recent years, we have seen another variation on this theme more and more often: the reprinting of vintage negatives by older photographers (living or posthumously) in these “modern” sizes. Having seen quite a few of these kinds of prints from various artists, I think they fall into two distinct and separate categories: exciting new interpretations that force the viewer to rethink the originals and posterish cliches that cross the line into overdone “too much”.
Lillian Bassman’s fashion images from the 1950s were, in their vintage form, already bleached and blurred; they were shadowy, delicate pictures with a strong essence of confident femininity. The new prints on view in this show are even more contrasty, the images in some cases looking almost like monochrome watercolors or ink paintings. Flowing gowns, strappy heels, feathered hats, and lace veils have all become even more polarized and grainy, dark eyes and indistinct faces made even more ethereal by the blinding whites and the obscure blacks.
For the most part, I think these large striking prints succeed at highlighting Bassman’s innovations in fashion photography, without becoming caricatures of themselves. Her ghostly heads and figures become even more indistinct and hallucinatory writ large, making the subtle gestures and penetrating looks she captured even more bold and assertive.
Collector’s POV: The images in this show are generally priced based on size and printing process. The pigment prints are either $6000 or $8000, the palladium-platinum prints are either $15000 or $17500 and the lone gelatin silver print is $4000. Again, these are all recent prints, made much larger than any of Bassman’s previous work. Her vintage and later silver prints, approximately 11×14 or smaller for the most part, are available from time to time in the secondary markets; prices have ranged between $4000 and $15000 in the past few years.

Rating: * (one star) GOOD (rating system described here)

Transit Hub:

  • NY Times feature, 2009 (here)
  • Lillian Bassman: Women book (here)
Lillian Bassman: Women
Through November 28th
560 Broadway
New York, NY 10012

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JTF (just the facts): Published in 2024 by Poursuite Editions (here). Softcover, 21 x 29 cm, 144 pages, with 107 black-and-white and color reproductions. Includes an essay by Clément Ghys ... Read on.

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