From 1936 to 1958, American photographer Louise Dahl-Wolfe (1895-1989) brought her formal precision, irreverent sense of humor, and volatile personality to the fashion magazine Harper’s Bazaar. As a staff photographer, she produced 86 covers and thousands of color and black-and-white photographs, including those on view in a special exhibition at the National Museum of Women in the Arts
. The exhibition, “Fashion Forward: Photographs by Louise Dahl-Wolfe,” features 29 black-and-white photographs that range from humorous juxtapositions of Dahl-Wolfe’s models with famous paintings and sculptures, to glamorous shots of fashions by design luminaries Cristobal Balenciaga, Christian Dior, Jacques Fath, and Claire McCardell.
Born in San Francisco, Louise Dahl spent six years at her native city’s Institute of Art studying painting, figure drawing, anatomy, and design. Inspired by the work of a friend, Dahl began experimenting with a camera at 26. By 1929 she had established herself as a professional photographer and married the American sculptor Meyer (Mike) Wolfe, who often constructed the backgrounds for her photo shoots. A self-described “frustrated painter,” Dahl-Wolfe always credited her early art-school training in color, form and composition for her success as a photographer. She also insisted that although photography could be done artistically, it was not a fine art like painting. In 1933 the couple moved to New York, where Dahl-Wolfe was a freelance photographer. She accepted the position at Harper’s because of her respect for the magazine’s editor, Carmel Snow, and the fashion editor, Diana Vreeland, and also because they offered her considerable creative freedom.
Working with Snow and Vreeland, Dahl-Wolfe helped make the 70-year-old Harper’s Bazaar newly relevant for the modern American woman. Fashion photography had long been constrained by studio settings and mannequin-like poses. By posing models outdoors in natural light and photographing them on location in exotic settings, Dahl-Wolfe introduced a witty, relaxed and natural aspect to fashion photography and, in the process, helped “define the post-war look of American women.” She also made memorable portrait photographs of leading figures from politics and the arts, “discovered” a teenage Lauren Bacall, and was a pioneer in the technique of color photography. Her work was shown in important touring exhibitions and she had several retrospectives. In 1989 Dahl-Wolfe received an honorary doctorate from Moore College of Art in Philadelphia, the first women’s art college in the United States; her work is often cited as a significant influence on later photographers, notably Richard Avedon.
“Fashion Forward: Photographs by Louise Dahl-Wolfe” will be on display through August 30, 2009. All works in this exhibition are from the collection of the National Museum of Women in the Arts and are gifts from Helen Cumming Ziegler.