The Arty Semite

Rediscovering Free-spirited Photographers Lillian Bassman and Paul Himmel

By Benjamin Ivry

  • Print
  • Share Share
Bassman Studios

At 92, Brooklyn-born Lillian Bassman and her husband Paul Himmel, who died last year at age 94, are enjoying remarkable, if belated, fame.

“Lillian Bassman: Women,” a lavish new volume by Deborah Solomon, highlights Bassman’s elegantly abstract black-and-white fashion photographs from the 1940s through the 1960s for magazines like Harper’s Bazaar. Solomon also notes the extreme elegance of Bassman’s willfully blurred imagery, which expresses the verve of Abstract Expressionist painters like Franz Kline. “Lillian Bassman & Paul Himmel,” edited by Ingo Taubhorn and Brigitte Woischnik, is an English/German dual language look at both creators that accompanied an exhibit in Hamburg, Germany’s Haus der Photographie.

Paul (born Motel) Himmel came from a colorful family; his Aunt Esther, a Coney Island snake charmer, married a sideshow “armless and legless wonder.” A comparably free spirit, but with legs and arms, Bassman worked as a nude model in the 1930s for Chaim Gross, as well as Raphael and Moses Soyer.

By 1932, the 15-year-old Lillian and 18-year-old Paul were already living together, and did so until Paul’s death 77 years later. Working at the “Harper’s Bazaar” editorial office, Bassman encouraged younger photographic talents like Arnold Newman and Robert Frank, but eventually grew disenchanted with much of her work in fashion photography.

Equally self-critical, Himmel, whose work interpreted motion in photography, especially ballet, once marched into the Museum of Modern Art and unceremoniously removed one of his photographs from public display because the curator had not asked his permission before showing it. Asked by one interviewer to describe the diet which allowed his remarkable longevity, Himmel explained that he favored “boiled beef, for instance, I think it’s a Jewish thing, I’m not sure.” Assuredly a Jewish thing was Himmel’s decision in mid-life to abandon the uncertain world of professional photography and become a psychotherapist instead.

Still living and working in a carriage house on Manhattan’s East 83rd street which has been the couple’s base since 1959, Bassman marches on.

Watch a 2009 tribute to Himmel (and Bassman) by their daughter Lizzie, herself an artist, below:


Permalink | | Share | Email | Print | Filed under: Paul Himmel, Deborah Solomon, Lillian Bassman

The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.




Find us on Facebook!
  • Can you relate?
  • The Forverts' "Bintel Brief" advice column ran for more than 65 years. Now it's getting a second life — as a cartoon.
  • Half of this Hillel's members believe Jesus was the Messiah.
  • Vinyl isn't just for hipsters and hippies. Israeli photographer Eilan Paz documents the most astonishing record collections from around the world:http://jd.fo/g3IyM
  • Could Spider-Man be Jewish? Andrew Garfield thinks so.
  • Most tasteless video ever? A new video shows Jesus Christ dying at Auschwitz.
  • "It’s the smell that hits me first — musty, almost sweet, emanating from the green felt that cradles each piece of silver cutlery in its own place." Only one week left to submit! Tell us the story of your family's Jewish heirloom.
  • Mazel tov to Chelsea Clinton and Marc Mezvinsky!
  • If it's true, it's pretty terrifying news.
  • “My mom went to cook at the White House and all I got was this tiny piece of leftover raspberry ganache."
  • Planning on catching "Fading Gigolo" this weekend? Read our review.
  • A new initiative will spend $300 million a year towards strengthening Israel's relationship with the Diaspora. http://jd.fo/q3Iaj Is this money spent wisely?
  • Lusia Horowitz left pre-state Israel to fight fascism in Spain — and wound up being captured by the Nazis and sent to die at Auschwitz. Share her remarkable story — told in her letters.
  • Vered Guttman doesn't usually get nervous about cooking for 20 people, even for Passover. But last night was a bit different. She was cooking for the Obamas at the White House Seder.
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?




















We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.