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Louis Dahl-Wolfe:
The American Image

Review by Lesley Martin

Louise Dahl-Wolfe was one of foremost female fashion photographers of the Forties and Fifties, but few have given her due respect until now. Fortunately, a new exhibit of her work at the Museum of the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York City (June 12-August 12) goes a long way toward restoring her title as The Grand Dame of Fashion.

Mary Jane Russell models a coat by Anthony Blotta and a turban by Mr. John on location in New Jersey with Chrysler’s "Imperial" sedan.
Harper’s Bazaar, April 1955
Louise Dahl-Wolfe

Dahl-Wolfe was a remarkable pioneer with the then-new and relatively untried technology of color photography and color-reproductions for magazines.

Louise Dahl-Wolfe was one of foremost female fashion photographers of the Forties and Fifties, but few have given her due respect until now. Fortunately, a new exhibit of her work at the Museum of the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York City (June 12-August 12) goes a long way toward restoring her title as The Grand Dame of Fashion.

Dahl-Wolfe was a remarkable pioneer with the then-new and relatively untried technology of color photography and color-reproductions for magazines.

From 1938 to 1959, she was the primary photographer for Harper’s Bazaar, a magazine with considerable fashion and graphic design vision under the direction of Alexei Brodovitch and legendary fashion editors Carmel Snow and Diana Vreeland. In 1958, Dahl-Wolfe ceded her mantle to none other than Richard Avedon, and for one reason or another, became eclipsed, little known or shown. Nonetheless, she left an indelible mark on the way American fashions and American women were seen; Avedon himself said of her, "Louise Dahl-Wolfe was the definition of elegance and beauty. She led the way out of the European tradition into the supremacy of American fashion photography." In addition to her ground-breaking work in color, her use of locations outside the studio (including small villages in Spain, Tunisia, the New Jersey shore, and other exotic locales) and loose, carefree poses, helped mold the image of American women as on-the-go, yet o-so-chic. Her vision became the clean and wholesome "New American look" of the post-war industrial era.

In the darkened hall of the Museum at FIT, spotlights tightly focus on each of the tearsheets on display. You feel as though you have just stepped into a sanctuary of sorts. The walls are jam packed with more than 150 images, primarily in color, but some of her black-and-white work is also featured, in particular portraits of celebrities like Orson Welles, Mae West, and Billie Holiday. The color works on display are not actual prints, but pages carefully removed from the magazines for which she photographed. During the time Dahl-Wolfe worked, photography in general—let alone fashion photography—was little valued as a fine art. Magazines that employed some of the best and brightest photographers of that era periodically threw out the backlog of original prints and negatives.

Given the added fact that the medium was unstable at that time (it tended to discolor and fade), it’s understandable, if unfortunate, that very little remains of Dahl-Wolfe’s work. However, it adds to the nostalgic patina of the photographs to see them as most of the world experienced her images: as air-brushed, half-tone reproductions on thin, glossy magazine stock. Frequently, the images on display feature the original text as it ran in the magazines ("Be round-headed! Be brassy!"), adding an additional layer of cultural context.

Suit by Kort Lee, John Frederics hat. Harper's Bazaar, August 1952 Tear sheet  Louise Dahl-Wolfe
I have to admit I’m enamoured of the work—and not only because of the subdued, yet lush "High Society" palette or the crisp, snappy compositions that fill Dahl-Wolfe’s frames (or because I’m the editor of the forthcoming retrospective monograph). I am entranced by the full-arch of the eyebrows, the sporty yet still-elegant gestures of the sleekly gloved hands, and a hundred other subtle intricacies of the hair, wardrobes, and personas of the lithe women in these photos. The trim, just-so styles of those decades are full of inspirations for today’s retro-influenced fashions, and I’m tempted to take the soon-to-be published catalog over to a designer-friend’s house and force her to make me a new wardrobe in the get-up-and-go style of Claire MacCardell or the retro-futurism of Traina-Norell.

If you have the opportunity, hurry to catch this show before it closes on August 12.

And if you don’t live in New York, look for the catalog (Louis Dahl-Wolfe, Harry N. Abrams, Inc.) due out in Fall 2000. It’s the perfect source material for designers, photographers, and retro-enthusiasts longing for that classic yet dynamic look, and a fitting tribute to a photographer ignored for much too long.


 

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