Louise Dahl-Wolfe was an American photographer. She is known primarily for her work for Harper's Bazaar
, in association with fashion editor Diana Vreeland. Louise Emma Augusta Dahl was born November 19, 1895 in San Francisco, California to Norwegian immigrant parents; she was the youngest of three daughters. In 1914, she began her studies at the California School of Fine Arts (now the San Francisco Institute of Art), where she studied design and color with Rudolph Schaeffer, and painting with Frank Van Sloan. She took courses in life drawing, anatomy, figure composition and other subjects over the next six years.
After graduating, Dahl-Wolfe worked in designing electric signs and interiors. In 1921, Dahl-Wolfe met with photographer Anne Brigman, who inspired her to take up photography. Her first dark-room enlarger was a makeshift one she built herself, which used a tin can, an apple crate, and a part of a Ghirardelli chocolate box for a reflector. She studied design, decoration and architecture at Columbia University, New York in 1923.
From 1927 to 1928, Dahl-Wolfe traveled with photographer Consuelo Kanaga, who furthered her interest in photography. Her first published photograph, titled Tennessee Mountain Woman
, was published in Vanity Fair
(U.S. magazine 1913–36). In 1928 she married the sculptor Meyer Wolfe, who constructed the backgrounds of many of her photos.
Dahl-Wolfe was known for taking photographs outdoors, with natural light in distant locations from South America to Africa in what became known as "environmental"
fashion photography. Compared to other photographers at the time who were using red undertones, Dahl-Wolfe opted for cooler hues and also corrected her own proofs, with one example of her pulling proofs repeatedly to change a sofa's color from green to a dark magenta.
She preferred portraiture to fashion photography. Notable portraits include: Mae West, Cecil Beaton, Eudora Welty, W. H. Auden, Christopher Isherwood, Orson Welles, Carson McCullers, Edward Hopper, Colette and Josephine Baker. She is known for her role in the discovery of a teenage Lauren Bacall whom she photographed for the March 1943 cover of Harper's Bazaar
. One of her favorite subjects was the model Mary Jane Russell, who is estimated to have appeared in about thirty percent of Dahl-Wolfe's photographs. She was a great influence on photographers Irving Penn
and Richard Avedon
. One of her assistants was fashion and celebrity photographer, Milton H. Greene.
From 1933 to 1960, Dahl-Wolfe operated a New York City photographic studio that was home to the freelance advertising and fashion work she made for stores including Bonwit Teller and Saks Fifth Avenue. From 1936 to 1958 Dahl-Wolfe was a staff fashion photographer at Harper’s Bazaar. She produced portrait and fashion photographs totaling 86 covers, 600 color pages and countless black-and-white shots. She worked with editor Carmel Snow, art director Alexey Brodovitch
and fashion editor Diana Vreeland, and traveled widely. In 1950, she was selected for "America's Outstanding Woman Photographers" in the September issue of Foto. From 1958 until her retirement in 1960, Dahl-Wolfe worked as a freelance photographer for Vogue, Sports Illustrated, and other periodicals.
Louise Dalhl-Wolfe lived many of her later years in Nashville, Tennessee. She died in New Jersey of pneumonia in 1989. The full archive of Dahl-Wolfe's work is located at the Center for Creative Photography
(CCP) at the University of Arizona in Tucson, which also manages the copyright of her work.
In 1999, her work was the subject of a documentary film entitled Louise Dahl-Wolfe: Painting with Light
. The film featured the only surviving modern footage of Dahl-Wolfe, including extensive interviews. It was written and directed by Tom Neff, edited by Barry Rubinow and produced by Neff and Madeline Bell.
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. Travel with the photographer Consuelo Kanaga in Europe in 1927-28 piqued her interest in photography once again.
In 1932, when she was living with her husband near the Great Smoky Mountains, she made her first published photograph, Tennessee Mountain Woman
. After it was published in Vanity Fair
in 1933, 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. Dahl-Wolfe remained with the magazine until 1958, after which time she accepted freelance assignments from Vogue
and Sports Illustrated until her retirement in 1960.
Dahl-Wolfe was especially well-known during the infancy of color fashion photography for her exacting standards in reproducing her images. Her insistence on precision in the color transparencies made from her negatives resulted in stunning prints whose subtle hues and unusual gradations in color set the standard for elegance in the 1940s and 1950s. In addition, she pioneered the active yet sophisticated image of the "New Woman"
through her incorporation of art historical themes and concepts into her photographs.
Source: International Center of Photography
"I believe that the camera is a medium of light, that one actually paints with light. In using the spotlights with reflecting lights, I could control the quality of the forms revealed to build a composition. Photography, to my mind, is not a fine art. It is splendid for recording a period of time, but it has definite limitations, and the photographer certainly hasn't the freedom of the painter. One can work with taste and emotion and create an exciting arrangement of significant form, a meaningful photograph, but a painter has the advantage of putting something in the picture that isn't there or taking something out that is there. I think this makes painting a more creative medium."
— Louise Dahl-Wolf, 1984
Dahl-Wolfe preferred portraiture to fashion work, and while at Harper's she photographed cultural icons and celebrities including filmmaker Orson Wells, writer Carson McCullers, designer Christian Dior, photographer Cecil Beaton, writer Colette, and broadcast journalist Edward R. Murrow. In addition to her Harper's responsibilities, Dahl-Wolfe was able to pursue her own vision in the studio and sometimes even while on assignment. For example, she asked a model to pose for the unpublished Nude in the Desert
while on location in California's Mojave Desert shooting swimsuits that would appear in the May 1948 edition of Harper's.
From 1958 until her retirement in 1960, Dahl-Wolfe worked as a freelance photographer for Vogue, Sports Illustrated, and other periodicals. Major exhibitions of her work include Women of Photography: An Historical Survey
at San Francisco Museum of Modern Art; The History of Fashion Photography and Recollections: Ten Women of Photography
at International Museum of Photography, George Eastman House
, Rochester, New York; and Portraits
at the Center for Creative Photography, University of Arizona, Tucson. Retrospectives include shows at Grey Art Gallery, New York University; Cheekwood Fine Arts Center, Nashville, Tennessee; and Louise Dahl-Wolfe: A Ninetieth Birthday Salute
at the Museum of Contemporary Photography, Chicago. Louise Dalh-Wolfe lived many of her later years in Nashville, Tennessee, though she died in New Jersey of pneumonia in 1989.
Source: International Center of Photography