The Art of Louise Dahl-Wolfe

Virginia Stewart (in Joset Walker) by Louise Dahl-Wolfe for Harper’s Bazaar, May 1948. Image HEARST PUBLISHING

Recently, I’ve been feeling quite nostalgic…. I’m putting that down to the fact that I’ve been clearing out a lot of old clutter in my life. Oddly enough, amongst the sorting everything out, I’ve found artistic inspiration in that I’m currently going through a very creative period. Hope it lasts for a long time! But enough about me, on to the fashion!

Tan Arnold (in B.H. Wragge) at the Hearst estate in San Simeon, California, by Louise Dahl-Wolfe for a 1958 edition of Harper’s Bazaar. Image HEARST PUBLISHING

As with last week’s jewelry post, today’s is inspired by a picture- an old editorial photograph to be exact. You can see the picture below, and if you’ve been on our Facebook page recently, you’d recognize it as our new profile picture. It’s a 1957 shot of Jessica Taft by the legendary Louise Dahl-Wolfe that was taken on the original (now eroded) Clifton Hill beach in Point Fortin, Trinidad- a place that means a lot to me. Finding this shot has made me extremely nostalgic for so many reasons, but especially because it was taken just steps from my grandparent’s and then father’s home in Shell Petroleum Trinidad’s Clifton Hill Camp.

Jessica Taft by Louise Dahl-Wolfe, 1957. Image GETTY

When this picture was taken, Clifton Hill was in its heyday- the glittering social hub of Shell Trinidad and a place of elegant parties, afternoon high tea and after dinner cocktails at the Clifton Hill Club. With one picture, I was transported to a world I knew from countless family stories; similar in many ways to mine, but different- mostly in its simplicity. Its simplicity that makes this image so striking- using nothing more than natural light, good clothes and setting, a gorgeous model and the brilliance of Ms. Dahl-Wolfe, an image of lasting, completely un-retouched fabulous-ness was created. I’m always floored by the the work of the great photographers of the fashion’s golden days, and this picture certainly reminded my why that is.

Jessica Ford (in a Nelly de Grab beach outfit and Mr. John hat) by Louise Dahl-Wolfe, for Harper’s Bazaar May 1957. Image HEARST PUBLISHING

As you might have guessed, this post is about Louise Dahl-Wolfe, one of the most celebrated photographers of the 1930’s, 40’s, and 50’s. She’s primarily known for her work with Harper’s Bazaar and her collaborations with editorial legends Carmel Snow and Diana Vreeland. She pioneered the use of natural lighting in outdoor and location shoots as well as in fashion photography, and is renowned for her role in integrating color into fashion editorials. Her work has heavily influenced many great photographers from Horst P. Horst, Richard Avedon, Irving Penn to Steven Meisel and Annie Leibovitz.

Betty Threatt by Louise Dahl-Wolfe, for a 1949 edition of Harper’s Bazaar. Image HEARST PUBLISHING

Born in San Fransisco, California, in November 1895, Louise Dahl-Wolfe originally intended to be an artist. She began attending the California School of Fine Arts (now the San Francisco Institute of Art) in 1914, where for six years she studied design and painting; taking courses in life drawing, anatomy, figure, composition and colour.

Mary Jane Russell by Louise Dahl-Wolfe for a 1955 edition of Harper’s Bazaar. Image HEARST PUBLISHING

During her time at school she became acquainted with a close friend of photographer Anne Brigman, who then also became a friend of Louise. Ms. Brigman invited Louise to her studio, where she viewed some of the photographer’s work. After examining some nudes set in ice caves and amongst cypress trees, Louise fell in love with the art of photography, and set about getting herself a camera.

Dappled Nude by Louise Dahl-Wolfe, 1944. Image HARVARD ART MUSEUM

She began taking pictures in 1923, eventually moving to New York to study design and architecture at Columbia University within that same year.

Her growing genius in photography soon began to attract attention, and in 1932 she was hired as a food photographer by Woman’s Home Companion. Soon after, acting on the suggestion of a friend, Louise sent some of her test portraits to the editor of Vanity Fair. It was this step that was the first true milestone of Louise’s career- her work was featured in the November 1933 edition of Vogue Magazine.

Diana Vreeland by Louise Dahl-Wolfe, for Harper’s Bazaar January 1942. Image HEARST PUBLSHING

Vanity Fair was so impressed by her work, that soon after her feature was published, they offered her a chance to join their staff as a portrait photographer. However Louise turned them down, preferring the artistic freedom that freelance work offered her, and set up her own independent photography studio.

Elizabeth Treatt (in Hattie Carnegie) by Louise Dahl-Wolfe, for a 1951 edition Harper’s Bazaar. Image HEARST PUBLISHING

Shortly after, Louise began working with Saks Fifth Avenue, taking pictures for their catalogs and advertisements. This was her first experience with fashion photography, and her new job required her to create beautiful images that portrayed designer clothing in an interesting, but natural way. She began experimenting with showroom models and clothes to perfect her style, practicing different lighting techniques until she was able to develop new ways of making the women she shot look chic, elegant and beautiful while remaining completely natural.

Designer Jaques Fath (foreground) in the studio with model Bettina Graziani (right, wearing a Jaques Fath evening gown), by Louise Dahl-Wolfe, 1940. Image GETTY

Louise joined Harper’s Bazaar as a staff fashion photographer in 1936. She started small, photographing accessories and still lifes, and gradually working up to shooting portraits and fashion editorials. Louise remained with Bazaar for 22 years, during which time the magazine published thousands of her images- including 86 covers, 600 colour photographs and thousands of black and white pictures.

Cherry Nelms (in Lilli Ann) by Louise Dah-Wolfe, for Harper’s Bazaar February 1953. Image HEARST PUBLISHING

Louise Dahl-Wolfe had a very distinct style of capturing subjects in full focus. She often styled her compositions against striking backdrops (often in the outdoors) and repeatedly featured light-reflecting props like mirrors and crystal chandeliers in her photographs. She drew upon the skills she learned during her time both at university and after to produce unusual and striking photographs. She saw light as an artistic medium, and by manipulating the play of light on the figures in her compositions, Louise conveyed her subjects in relate-able- but fully chic- terms.

Mary Jane Russell (in Balenciaga) by Louise Dahl-Wolfe, for a 1950 edition of Harper’s Bazaar. Image GETTY IMAGES

Louise often said that she preferred portraiture to fashion photography and during her career she photographed many notable people of her time- Mae West, Mary Jane Russel, Orson Welles, Edward Hopper, Sidonie-Gabriell Colette and Josephine Baker, to name a few. She is also credited with discovering Lauren Bacall (GASP), who she photographed as a teenager for a 1943 cover of Harper’s Bazaar.

Lauren Bacall (in Maurice Rentner) by Louise Dahl-Wolfe, for Harper’s Bazaar May 1943. Image HEARST PUBLISHING

Her career at Harper’s Bazaar ended in 1958, when she left amidst a shift in editorial management. Louise disliked the notion of being told how to work, and preferred to keep her artistic freedom, saying, “I could never work in someone else’s studio. I am of an independent nature and need my own surroundings.”

After leaving Bazaar Louise returned to freelance work, doing features for Vogue, Sports Illustrated and many other publications.

Millicent Rogers (in a Charles James blouse and Balenciaga skirt) by Louise Dahl-Wolfe, for a 1940 edition of Harper’s Bazaar. Image MILLICENT ROGERS MUSEUM/LOUISE DAHL-WOLFE

Louise Dahl-Wolfe lived many of her later years in Nashville, Tennessee, eventually dying of pneumonia at the age of 94 in New Jersey in 1989.

Louise Dahl-Wolfe’s work has literally changed the face of fashion and defined an entire era of iconic American history. She elevated the skill of fashion photography to a true art form and her work continues to stay current regardless of her craft’s ever changing style. Her images are still, and will continue to be regarded as a measure of sophisticated glamour and elegance in photography.

Model in White Dior Ball Gown with Mirror Mary Jane Russell (in Dior) by Louise Dahl-Wolfe, 1950. Image MUSEUM OF CONTEMPORARY PHOTOGRAPHY

This post is for you Ms Dahl-Wolfe. Thank you for constantly reminding us of beautiful times!

7 thoughts on “The Art of Louise Dahl-Wolfe

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