This past weekend, I stumbled upon an exhibition of Lillian Bassman photographs here in LA. The photographs were stunning—and, as Emily Dickinson would say, I felt as if the top of my head were taken off. I couldn’t believe I’d never seen Bassman’s work before. Each woman she photographed was a classic beauty in the way people used to describe old-time movie stars and models. Long necks and long evening gowns, gloves, hats, and silk and lace lingerie certainly added to the effect, but there was something else that made the women and their photographs so extraordinary. I think I’d still be hard-pressed to articulate exactly what that is. The word that comes to mind is grace, or maybe poise. These women knew how to hold themselves. And Bassman knew how to present them. Gloriously. As I left, I felt dazzled by the photographs, but also wondered where all our glamour had gone. Like: were women only really beautiful in the 1940s and 50s? (We were puritans and pioneers before and hippies and porn stars afterward). Or, what in the world had the sexual revolution done to beauty? Did we lose something we should have saved?
A bride on her wedding day is a rare exception, the only one I can think of easily. A bride can be a classic beauty: feminine, graceful—in ways that seem ever otherwise out of place in our culture. A woman’s wedding day is the one day in her life where it’s socially acceptable to do and be the things those classic beauties, in their heyday, did and were. I just wish (sort of wistfully—it seems practically impossible) that we could feel more comfortable with a sort of everyday elegance than we really are nowadays, that we could somehow hold onto part of our once-in-a-lifetime bridal beauty knowledge in daily life. I am implicating myself here, too. I’ve worn makeup only about three times in my life (and not that makeup matters much in the point I am making, but I am embarrassed to say I don’t even know how to put it on). I digress. I am lucky I choose to photograph brides, for I get to photograph women on the day they are their most beautiful. This is just to say: brides, all of you are so lovely, true beauties, each and every one. Cheers to you!
A quick read on Lillian Bassman’s career will reveal that she destroyed much of her body of work in the 1960s, and for decades quit altogether making photographs for fashion magazines. She was wholly frustrated by the new breed of models in the 60s; everything was different. Fortunately, I don’t think I’ll ever see that in my line of work and art.
photo: Gia Canali