A Leipzig photographer recently twittered the question why do fashion photographers insist on taking photos of women with animal horns on their heads?
Until March 3rd 2013 the Grassi Museum for Applied Arts Leipzig is presenting a photography exhibition that proves not only that originality in fashion photography is possible; but that the verb “to photoshop” is older than the eponymous software. It just didn’t have a name before.
Lillian Bassman and Paul Himmel are probably unknown to most readers. Indeed the two curators of the exhibition, Prof Ingo Taubhorn from the Deichtorhallen Hamburg and Brigitte Woischnik from Foto Factory München, freely admit that upon first seeing photos from the pair they had to research just who stood behind the work.
By way of a brief introduction, both Lillian Bassman and Paul Himmel originated from Russian/Ukrainian migrant families and grew up in New York, both studied with and under Alexey Brodovitch and both worked for Harper’s Bazaar.
And both produced the most amazing canons of photographic work.
Very different canons that have both passed largely unnoticed through, at least the public, photographic consciousness.
And viewing Zwei Leben für die Fotografie – Lillian Bassman and Paul Himmel you ask yourself, how could that be?
No honestly how?
Through her artistic leanings – as with so many design and applied art biographies Lillian Bassman initially wanted to be a painter before fate did what fate does best – Lillian Bassman created her own style of fashion photography, a style that seems to have only very little interest in presenting the fashions in a bright light and more with creating atmospheric worlds half-way between reality and fantasy.
Today fashion photographers attempt the same with a wide aperture and soft focus – or indeed antlers – Lillian Bassman used monotone contrast and the unlimited possibilities of development room chemicals to create her truly mesmerising works. Works that reminds us that instagram is a bit of fun and not something to be mistaken for a deep understanding of the science of photography.
Paul Himmel’s fascination was movement. On the one hand actual movement – and his photos contain more blurred images than we believe we’ve ever seen in a photo exhibition – and on the other perceived movement, or the moment before movement. His study of ballet dancers, for example, contains some of the most intense, descriptive shots of ballet dancers or thespians you’re ever likely to come across.
But its not all manipulations and intense studies. There are also New York street scenes, Parisian street scenes or simple holiday shots.
The original exhibition ran in 2009 in the Deichtorhalle Hamburg, for the Grassi Museum exhibition the original curators have joined forces with the head of the Grassi photographic collection Eberhard Patzig to produce a new exhibition, curated to fit the space and atmosphere in Leipzig.
In addition to presenting a fascinating overview of the works of Lillian Bassman and Paul Himmel, the exhibition in the Grassi Museum also beautifully illustrates the work process leading to the published photos. Selected works, for example, are positioned next to the original contact sheets so you can see which photo was selected and just how manipulated it then was, or other works are positioned next to the stages leading from the raw shot to the published work.
And all in a time before computer manipulation was possible.
Or almost all.
In later years both Lillian Bassman and Paul Himmel experimented with the computer manipulation of their images, and some of the results are also on show. Lillian Bassman used modern technology to create works from her negatives that would not have been possible to the same degree with analogue methods. Paul Himmel to recut and so re contextualise his pieces. Something that is beautifully illustrated in the exhibition through the positing of “old” and “new” next to one another.
For all who tire of “standard” black and white or fashion photography exhibitions Zwei Leben für die Fotografie – Lillian Bassman and Paul Himmel is the perfect antidote. Presenting as it does the unfamiliar works of two relatively unknown protagonists in a context and exhibition that positively draws you to them.
Zwei Leben für die Fotografie – Lillian Bassman and Paul Himmel runs at the Grassi Museum for Applied Arts Leipzig until March 3rd 2013. In addition to the exhibition itself the museum is also presenting an accompanying programme featuring films, tours and workshops.
Full details can be found at www.grassimuseum.de
And by way of our tribute, our impressions from the exhibition are in black and white. With occasional movement.