Sunday 28 September 2014
Meeting Ruth Ansel

Ladies and gentlemen, we proudly present Ruth Ansel, a woman who’s always been at the right place at the right time. Back in the 60’s, when she was just 24, she and Bea Feitler became co-art directors of Harper’s Bazaar. In the 70’s, Ruth was the art director of The New York Times Magazine, in the 80’s, Vanity Fair. Each time, she was the first woman in that position. In recent years, she’s run her own studio – Ruth Ansel Design – designing books like the much-talked about, 20-inch tall monograph on the photographer and artist Peter Beard. Today, Ruth is 70 years old and still working.

Ruth is Grand. Everyone we’ve met has spoken about her with the utmost respect. Ruth is the one we’ve dreamed most about meeting though we hardly dared to think it would ever happen. She’s been known to publish fake e-mail addresses online with the sole purpose of making it harder for people to reach her. A few months ago, we called her up. It was a brief conversation, ending shortly after Ruth sternly told us that she would »look us up«. Several nervous weeks later, we received an e-mail from Ruth in which she praised our work. Throughout our entire career, nothing has been as important as that e-mail. We felt like a door had opened, that we had received an invitation to an important society. Is this what it feels like to be in the »in« crowd?

Ruth Ansel lives in a posh apartment building on Manhattan’s Upper West Side. In her courtyard a film crew is set to shoot a Disney film starring Nicolas Cage. On our way up to the tenth floor, the elevator man asks us if we’re aware that Cyndi Lauper lives in the house. »You know that song ’Girls Just Wanna Have Fun’?« But we’re focused on a different lady.

Ruth Ansel welcomes us into her large apartment, only to disappear into the kitchen. She’s wearing black clothes, Mary Janes, a big orange watch and a turquoise ring. In the kitchen, she’s arranged a lunch buffet of delicious treats; croissants, smoked fish spread, tasty cheeses and small apples. We fill up our plates and ask if she’s interested in food. »Unfortunately«, she replies, not helping herself to lunch. Above the refrigerator there’s a blackboard in the shape of a cat. On it, Ruth has scribbled a Diana Vreeland quote : »Elegance is refusal.« It’s supposed to keep her from sneaking things out of the fridge.

In 1963, when Ruth Ansel and Bea Feitler were appointed co-art directors of Harper’s Bazaar, the leading fashion magazine of its time, they were met with blatant skepticism by a male-dominated media world. Could two twenty-something females really shoulder such an important role? However, it didn’t take long before the duo had modernized the magazine by infusing it with elements of pop art, street fashion, rock and roll music and film. They chose photographers whose work changed fashion photography forever. Furthermore, the graphic design of Ansel and Feitler set a new standard in magazine design, an updated take on Brodovitch’s revolutionary designs from the 40’s and 50’s.

Ruth Ansel ended up in the magazine world by accident. She was born in the Bronx in the late 1930s. Her father was in the china import business and her mom ran a small lingerie shop. From childhood, Ruth took a great interest in art and movies. Along with her classmate Nina Castelli, daughter of Leo Castelli and Ileana Sonnabend , central figures in the New York art world, she spent a summer in East Hampton at age 15. There, she saw the artist William De Kooning paint his »Woman« series in the downstairs guest bedroom where he was living at the time. Jackson Pollock and Larry Rivers often came by for dinner. Together with the Castelli-Sonnabend family, Ruth went to see her first Balanchine ballet performance as well as Robert Rauschenberg and Picasso exhibitions. It was then her love for art took root.

She graduated from Alfred University earning a Bachelor of Fine Arts Degree majoring in ceramic design but soon realized her career opportunities were limited. After a brief marriage, she escaped to Europe to mend her heart and look for adventure. Her plan was to look for work in different countries and eventually end up in Rome. But after eight months of travel she ran out of money and knew it was time to head home. She felt that, as a young woman, she was never taken seriously in her pursuit of a graphic design career. 

Ruth shows us into the living room. The sun shines in through an open window. On the walls there are pictures we’ve seen in books, like Richard Avedon’s famous Andy Warhol Factory triptych and his portrait of Stravinsky. Some are signed with personal notes to Ruth. Her white Mac is standing on a desk that stretches along a wall. Every now and then, we hear a little »pling« announcing she’s got mail. Ruth asks us to sit down on the large couch, and adds that it’s quite uncomfortable, so we should help ourselves to plush pillows to put behind our backs.

Large bookshelves hold yard upon yard of bookmarked books and magazines. We would love to browse through them all. One of the lower shelves carries all the magazine issues on which Ruth has ever worked. They’re collected in heavy bound volumes. She tells us that she has one copy of each magazine except for the Harper’s Bazaar 1965 April issue – with the legendary cover where model Jean Shrimpton wears a large pink helmet and blinks with one eye if you tilt the magazine.

– Samira Bouabana, Angela Tillman Sperandio, 2010

Preface: Hall of Femmes: Ruth Ansel, 2010
Editor: Ika Johannesson

Buy the book here. Buy the poster here.

Left: Model Jean Shrimpton on the famous cover of Harper's Bazaar April 1965, with the winking eye. Art direction: Ruth Ansel and Bea Feitler. Photo: Richard Avedon. © 2010 The Richard Avedon Foundation. Right: Harper’s Bazaar fold-down cover, August 1966. Art direction: Ruth Ansel and Bea Feitler. Photo: James Moore.

Left: Model Jean Shrimpton on the famous cover of Harper’s Bazaar April 1965, with the winking eye. Art direction: Ruth Ansel and Bea Feitler. Photo: Richard Avedon. © 2010 The Richard Avedon Foundation. Right: Harper’s Bazaar fold-down cover, August 1966. Art direction: Ruth Ansel and Bea Feitler. Photo: James Moore.

Posted by: 16:09

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Categories: Ika Johannesson, Preface, Richard Avedon, Ruth Ansel, Yolanda Cuomo

Friday 26 September 2014
Meeting Lillian Bassman

»I think you’ll fall in love with Lillian.« This is how Stephen, Lillian Bassman’s assistant, begins a letter to us before our meeting in New York. As it turns out, he’s right. To meet Lillian Bassman is to fall in love and we’re hardly the first ones. In every book and interview we’ve read, it’s obvious that Lillian is irresistible.

We visit Ms. Bassman in her combined home and studio on the Upper East Side. The building is a former carriage house and a black-and-white stone pattern covers up a hole in the floor. We learn that this is where they used to drop down hay to the horses in the old days. Now her son Eric lives on the ground floor, where Lillian and her husband Paul Himmel, who passed away in 2009, used to share a workspace. When we arrive she’s wearing a light blue man’s shirt with her bare feet up on a stool watching a World Cup match, England versus Algeria. Following a brief illness she now needs extra oxygen delivered through her nose via a plastic tube. In spite of the tube Lillian looks cool. It’s summer and her daughter Lizzie offers us iced coffee. We’re afraid that the noise from the fan will drown out the sound on our recording.

Over the past few years there has been a Lillian Bassman revival of sorts, and several books and photo exhibitions of her work have popped up around the world. She began photographing in the late 1940s, and for two decades her work appeared in almost every issue of Harper’s Bazaar, as well as in countless advertisements for high end brands. Her pictures capture the postwar feminine ideal, with long necks, sweeping skirts and narrow waists. It’s said that Carmel Snow, the legendary editor at Harper’s Bazaar, admired Lillian’s ability to make even the simplest piece of clothing seem glamorous. The women in her pictures are inaccessible in a way that’s very sexy; and even though they’re obviously posing, you get the feeling that they don’t know they’re being watched. They ooze integrity.

In the beginning of the 1970s, however, Lillian abruptly lost interest in fashion photography and turned to more personal art projects. She destroyed many of her negatives, but some she boxed up and deposited in an old unheated coal shed behind the house. She continued to shoot commercially and spent two years designing her own fashion line. 30 years later, an artist renting the downstairs studio stumbled upon the boxes while clearing out the shed and Lillian began revisiting her old work. It could be that Lillian’s great success as a photographer casts a shadow over her brief, yet important role within graphic design. In this book we would like to draw attention to that period.

At the end of the 1940s, as the art director at two of the most influential magazines of all time, Harper’s Bazaar and Junior Bazaar, she has a unique insight into the golden age of American magazine culture. The post war era was defined by its belief in the future, an optimistic and experimental climate that never ceases to appeal to art directors. Perhaps that fascination has reached its pinnacle today. After all, we live in a time when aesthetically, we are looking backwards rather than forwards. For years Junior Bazaar was solely a subsection within Harper’s Bazaar, a space dedicated to more youthful style tips and fashion. But from 1945–1948 it was an independent magazine. If we had been teenagers in the 1940s we would have bought every single issue. These days they’re not only hard to find, but also very expensive. When we lament this to writer Vince Aletti, famous for his enormous collection of fashion magazines, he replies: »I know. I’m the one who’s buying them.«

Though Alexey Brodovitch, Lillian’s teacher and mentor, is usually credited as the sole creator of Junior Bazaar, in fact it was Lillian who designed the magazine. Her life story reads like a movie and stretches across the entire 20th century. And because both Lillian and her husband were photographers, there are thousands of pictures from their lives. She describes her childhood as very liberal with a hard-working father and an independent mother clearly, the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree. She tells us how she and her older sister used to run around naked in the house and sleep on mattresses directly on the floor.

Lillian was just five years old when she met her future husband, Paul when he tried to drown her at the beach on Coney Island. Ten years later they became a couple and moved in together, while Lillian was still in high school. To us, her parents, who were emigrés from Russia and the Ukraine, seem like »real hippies«. Lillian corrects us: »No, they were bohemians.« Later, when we refer to her work as »punk «, she does it again »It was avant garde«.

When we leave the free-minded Lillian we are in an almost euphoric state. We walk along Lexington Avenue and dream about being a fly on the wall at the Bassman’s. Suddenly, the world feels like an open playground, ours for the taking.

Samira Bouabana & Angela Tillman Sperandio, 2010

From Hall of Femmes: Lillian Bassman
Editor: Ika Johannesson

Buy the book here.

Posted by: 21:00

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Categories: Ika Johannesson, Lillian Bassman, Preface

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