As a pioneer of her profession, photographer Louise Dahl-Wolfe was the epitome of an independent postwar woman. But it wasn’t only her achievements that helped redefine female empowerment. It was also her genre-defining images.
While working for Harper’s Bazaar from 1936 to 1958, Dahl-Wolfe spearheaded a new era of fashion photography that focused on assertive, aspirational women. In an era of formal society portraits, the American photographer captured models in casual – and often sun-drenched – outdoor settings.
Her quirky and candid images had a lasting impact on the fashion industry, according to Dennis Nothdruft, curator of a new exhibition on Dahl-Wolfe’s work at the Fashion and Textile Museum in London.
“She had a real ability to capture people’s essences in an informal setting,” he said in a phone interview. “She really appreciated how clothes react and move on a body, rather than just on stationary figures in a studio somewhere.
“For Dahl-Wolfe, it was all about real women. She photographed beautiful models but they were real women in real situations – out and about, at art galleries or on holiday. Her photos really captured people’s lives.”
The art of fashion photography
After studying fine art and color theory at the California School of Fine Arts, Dahl-Wolfe began producing photography and reportage in the early 1930s. She then joined Harper’s Bazaar as a staff photographer at a time when women’s magazines were growing in popularity and reputation.
Together with editor Carmel Snow and fashion editor Diana Vreeland, Dahl-Wolfe helped turn fashion photography into an art form in its own right, putting women at the forefront of an industry dominated by men. She shot 86 covers for the magazine, and had thousands of other images published.
As well as photographing the clothes of major fashion houses, like Chanel and Dior, Dahl-Wolfe worked with the supermodels of her day. She is often credited with discovering movie star Lauren Bacall, who secured her first Hollywood screen test after appearing on the cover of a 1943 issue of Harper’s Bazaar.
“Along with Vreeland and Snow, Dahl-Wolfe really put Harper’s Bazaar at the forefront of fashion,” Nothdruft said. “She was a distinctive photographer of the time.”
Although best known for fashion photography, Dahl-Wolfe also redefined the celebrity portrait, shooting the likes of Edward Hopper, Orson Welles and W.H. Auden. Her portraiture features among more than 100 photos in the exhibition “Louise Dahl–Wolfe: A Style of Her Own,” the first major retrospective of her work to take place in the UK.
“Louise Dahl-Wolfe: A Style of Her Own” is on at the Fashion and Textile Museum in London from Oct. 20, 2017 to Jan. 21, 2018.