The groundbreaking photographer spent 22 years at Harper's Bazaar, working alongside Carmel Snow, Diana Vreeland, and Alexey Brodovitch to help redefine the look and feel of American fashion as we know it today. Next month, the fruits of their collaboration—vibrant, glamorous images of women on the cutting edge of their time—will be celebrated with an exhibition at New York's Museum at the Fashion Institute of Technology and in a new book from Aperture. Here, we explore their bright view of the future.
At first blush, photographer Louise Dahl-Wolfe cut an unlikely figure in the fashion world. Bespectacled and chubby-cheeked, she was 40 years old when editor Carmel Snow hired her in 1936 to take pictures for Harper's Bazaar. Snow, a slender, diminutive Irish immigrant with a fondness for pearls and martini lunches, had blown into the Bazaar offices herself just a few years earlier. She and her eagle-eyed, Russian-born art director, Alexey Brodovitch, were both itching to banish the stodgy black-and-white society portraits that still dominated the burgeoning world of fashion photography. Instead they wanted the images to match their vision for the modern, liberated woman—one who worked, traveled, danced, drank champagne, and lived with such vitality that she'd leap off the page.
The fiercely independent Dahl-Wolfe had been freelancing for Saks Fifth Avenue when Snow came across her work and immediately zeroed in on the photographer's sun-drenched outdoor settings, casually posed models, and vivid, painterly use of color. Something clicked: "From the moment I saw [Dahl-Wolfe's] first color photographs I knew that Bazaar was at last going to look the way I had instinctively wanted my magazine to look," wrote Snow, whose memos were published in the 2005 biography A Dash of Daring. She quickly introduced Dahl-Wolfe to Bazaar's new fashion editor, the fabled Diana Vreeland—an immaculately dressed socialite with a quixotic imagination and a devilish sense of humor—and together, this improbable group went on to chart the next phase in the evolution of American style.
With Dahl-Wolfe's eye, Vreeland's whimsy, Snow's direction, and Brodovitch's magic touch for knitting it all together on the page, Bazaar embodied the era's fresh, empowering spirit of fashion. Embracing strong, statuesque models like Lauren Bacall (whose March 1943 Bazaar cover launched her Hollywood career) and movie stars like Ingrid Bergman, Vivien Leigh, and Bette Davis, Dahl-Wolfe coaxed her subjects outdoors and convinced them to loll on park benches and cavort on windswept beaches. "The way Louise's photographs are infused with light and vitality and dynamism were a big part of the rise of the American look," says Valerie Steele, the museum director and chief curator of New York's Museum at the Fashion Institute of Technology, which is mounting an exhibition of Dahl-Wolfe's Bazaar images in March. "Although Louise planned every picture meticulously, her photographs look like she just serendipitously chose the perfect moment to snap the girl with her scarf blowing in the wind. They were more like stories than portraits."