Revolution and Style in the Fashion Photography of Louise Dahl-Wolfe.

For years forgotten by both the photography and fashion worlds, Louise Dahl-Wolfe is what was most revolutionary about the 1920s and 1930s. Determined, modern, independent and creative, with her extremely avant-garde art, she influenced the work of colleagues such as Richard Avedon and Irving Penn and managed to revolutionize the rules of fashion photography, bringing a breath of fresh air to a field that was still rather rigid and formal at the time.

At first blush, photographer Louise Dahl-Wolfe cut an unlikely figure in the fashion world. Bespectacled and chubby-cheeked, she was 40 years old when editor Carmel Snow hired her in 1936 to take pictures for Harper’s Bazaar. Snow, a slender, diminutive Irish immigrant with a fondness for pearls and martini lunches, had blown into the Bazaar offices herself just a few years earlier. She and her eagle-eyed, Russian-born art director, Alexey Brodovitch, were both itching to banish the stodgy black-and-white society portraits that still dominated the burgeoning world of fashion photography. Instead they wanted the images to match their vision for the modern, liberated woman—one who worked, traveled, danced, drank champagne, and lived with such vitality that she’d leap off the page. But who was Louise Dahl-Wolfe really? And where did she come from?

Model in 1952, Photograph by Louise Dahl-Wolfe.

Born in Alameda, California, Dahl-Wolfe studied at the San Francisco Institute of Art. In 1921, while working as a sign painter, she discovered the photographs of Anne Brigman, a Pictorialist based in California and associated with the Stieglitz circle in New York. Although greatly impressed by Brigman’s work, Dahl-Wolfe did not take up photography herself until the early 1930s, when she moved to New York City and opened a photography studio, which she maintained until 1960. After a few years producing advertising and fashion photographs for Woman’s Home Companion, Saks Fifth Avenue, and Bonwit Teller, she was hired by Carmel Snow as a staff fashion photographer for Harper’s Bazaar in 1936. Something clicked, as Carmel Snow described the young photographer as follows:

“From the moment I saw [Dahl-Wolfe’s] first color photographs I knew that Bazaar was at last going to look the way I had instinctively wanted my magazine to look”

She quickly introduced Dahl-Wolfe to Bazaar‘s new fashion editor, the fabled Diana Vreeland—an immaculately dressed socialite with a quixotic imagination and a devilish sense of humor—and together, this improbable group went on to chart the next phase in the evolution of American style. At the time, it was an anomaly for women to be at the top of their professions—particularly all at one magazine—but Snow, Dahl-Wolfe, and Vreeland were too busy charging forward to be bothered with stereotypes. When the first commercial flights began rattling across the Atlantic, Snow sent Dahl-Wolfe and Vreeland to France, Spain, Mexico, Cuba, and other exotic locales for shoots.

Although they seem like chalk and cheese in personalities—no one could be more stylized than Diana Vreeland, and no one seemed more natural and earthy than Louise Dahl-Wolfe—they seemed to work together hand in glove. While Vreeland was a dreamer, Dahl-Wolfe was exacting and methodical. Classically trained at the San Francisco Institute School of Art, she approached composition with an informed eye: “You have to study color like the scales of the piano,” she wrote in her 1984 autobiography, A Photographer’s Scrapbook. “It’s really scientific. Later you can depend on whether you have either taste or imagination.” Appalled by the garish red undertones that pervaded color portraiture at the time, she preferred cooler hues and stubbornly insisted on correcting all of her own proofs, even throughout her career at Bazaar.

In addition to bringing a contemporary and informal approach to the field of fashion photography, Dahl-Wolfe played an important role in developing the personal style of the models she photographed, helping to create the first generation of supermodels: among them were Suzy Parker, Jean Patchett and Mary Jane Russell, who became very famous in the 1950s. To her we also owe the introduction of a more modern, relaxed and typically American look in fashion photography, at that time very focused on a more Eurocentric, elegant and sometimes pompous taste. Dahl-Wolfe began using color and shooting outdoors, using natural light, and traveling extensively to set up her photo shoots, choosing destinations such as Cuba, Tunisia, South America and Spain.

Evelyn Tripp a Gioia del Colle, Puglia. 1955, photographed by Louise Dahl-Wolfe.

Snow left Bazaar in 1957; Brodovitch the year after. Dahl-Wolfe quickly followed suit when the magazine’s new art director paid a surprise visit to her studio and had the audacity to peer through her camera during a shoot. Her aesthetic revolved around freedom, and she’d rather quit than be reined in. She withdrew from photography completely in 1960, moving with her husband to the New Jersey countryside, where she lived quietly until her death in 1989 at age 94. Rather than claim her place in history, Dahl-Wolfe considered publicity rather embarrassing, and preferred to let her images speak for themselves—as they continue to do, in volumes. 

Giovanni Troìa

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