About the Photographer
American, b.1895 San Francisco, CA; d.1989
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
Louise Dahl-Wolfe began photographing while in San Francisco and Tennessee in the early 1930s. One of her early portraits of the Smoky Mountains became her first published work, appearing in Vanity Fair in 1933, and Edward Steichen included her Tennessee pictures in a retrospective exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art, New York in 1937. From 1936 to 1958 Dahl-Wolfe was a staff fashion photographer at Harper's Bazaar. During that tenure, her photographs featured in the magazine included 86 covers, another 600 published in color, and thousands in black-and-white. A cover image of Betty Bacall sent the model for a Hollywood screen test where she soon changed her name to Lauren. While working for Harper's Dahl-Wolfe pioneered the use of natural lighting in fashion photography and shooting on location. Her innovations and modernist touches kept her widely celebrated in the 1930s, 40s and 50s, and she is remembered as an influence on a generation of photographers including Horst, Richard Avedon, and Irving Penn.
Dahl-Wolfe preferred portraiture to fashion work, and while at Harper's she photographed cultural icons and celebrities including film-maker 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 For example, she asked a model to pose for the unpublished Nude in the Desert while on location in California's Mojave Desert shooting swimsuits that would appear in the May 1948 edition of Harper's.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.