Louise Dahl-Wolfe: a style of her own

A major retrospective looks at the life and work of the woman credited with pioneering the field of fashion photography

(Image credit: Credit: Granger Historical Picture Archive / Alamy Stock Photo)

In what will be the first ever UK retrospective of the pioneering fashion photographer, a new exhibition at The Fashion and Textile Museum in London will showcase more than 100 photographs spanning three decades of Louise Dahl-Wolfe's work.

Said to have influenced many of the great photographers that followed her, including Irving Penn and Richard Avedon, Dahl-Wolfe's legacy positions her as one of the most influential female photographers to date. Working at a time when the concept of 'fashion photography' barely existed, her 22-year stint as the leading contributor at Harper's Bazaar etched out a new relaxed and more intimate style to contrast the rigidity of society portraits of the time. Once remarking that before her 'there weren’t really fashion photographers, just artists like [Edward] Steichen, who just happened to do fashion photography', the trailblazer's images marked a disjuncture from the sometimes overly formal European elegance that was the norm. Having incorporated far-flung locations and the innovative use of colour and daylight into her work, the landmark show at the Fashion and Textile Museum reflects upon her influence in the rise of fashion photography as a medium.

Credited with inspiring the first generation of 'supermodels', having worked with names such as Jean Patchett and Mary Jane Russell, it was also Dahl-Wolfe that shot a teenage Lauren Bacall for the March 1943 cover of Harper's Bazaar. Dahl-Wolfe's exceptional eye for colour, combined with her ability to capture a modern sensibility in fashion, revitalised magazine layouts and defined an aesthetic for many of her models’ future careers. In an industry dominated by male photographers, the show provides a unique insight into some of the earliest female portrayal of womanhood. The uniquely American photographer often featured the work of designer Christian Dior, and in celebration of the 70th anniversary of the house of Dior, the exhibition will also display a collection of original Dior dresses. Working alongside the legendary fashion director Diana Vreeland, editor Carmel Snow asserted that 'From the moment that I saw [Dahl-Wolfe's] first colour photographs, I knew Bazaar was at last going to look the way I had instinctively wanted'.

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In addition to Dahl-Wolfe's significant contribution in the fashion world, including 86 covers for Harper's Bazaar, it will also consider her substantial body of portraiture. Capturing important literary figures like WH Auden, Christopher Isherwood, Jean Cocteau, Edith Sitwell, Colette and Carson McCullers, she also documented Hollywood stars such as Bette Davis, Orson Welles and Vivien Leigh in the 1930s to James Cagney and Veronica Lake in the 1940s. Carefully planned, and somewhat witty, Dahl-Wolfe is recognized to have revitalised the Hollywood portrait, shaping American visual culture for decades to follow.

Coinciding with a resurgence of interest in female artistry, the retrospective not only highlights the ways in which Dahl-Wolfe portrayed the modern independent post-war woman, but also how she herself pioneered the way for women to also make their mark behind the lens.

Louise Dahl-Wolfe: A Style of her Own is at the Fashion and Textile Museum, London, from 20 October 2017 to 21 January 2018. Tickets £9.90; ftmlondon.org. Top image: Suzy Parker photographed by Louise Dahl-Wolfe, 1953. © Granger Historical Picture Archive / Alamy Stock Photo

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