Arts & Culture

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Louise Dahl-Wolfe: the construction of an independent female vision

Louise Dahl-Wolfe: the construction of an independent female vision

Kay Ean Leong reviews ‘Louise Dahl-Wolfe: A Style of Her Own’ at The Fashion and Textile Museum and the fashion photographer’s great legacy

The words ‘fashion photographer’ often conjure up the names of a slew of male photographers. A simple Google search testifies to this: type ‘fashion photographer’ into the search bar and you get Richard Avedon, Irving Penn and the like. Lesser known is the woman who influenced all these men, one who is also credited for carving out fashion photography as a profession in itself: Louise Dahl-Wolfe. The very definition of female empowerment, Dahl-Wolfe was not only the pioneer of a whole new profession, she also created images that fashioned a new visual style.

‘Louise Dahl-Wolfe: A Style of Her Own’, currently ongoing at The Fashion and Textile Museum in Bermondsey, is the UK’s first-ever retrospective of the eminent female photographer. Bringing together over 100 of her photographs, spanning three decades, the exhibition focuses not only on her work in fashion for which she is known for, but also her work in portraiture and documentary photography.

Credit: The Fashion and Textile Museum

Upon entering the exhibition, one is greeted by a corridor filled with Dahl-Wolfe’s Harper’s Bazaar covers. Her work is immediately striking: it is replete with contrasting and vibrant colours, simple backgrounds and clean and minimalistic compositions. A pioneer of the use of colour and daylight in fashion photography, she often shot on location and outdoors, bringing her models out of the studio and to exotic locales such as Tunisia, Cuba and South America. Her models pose candidly, almost as if Dahl-Wolfe had just walked in on them.

Prior to Dahl-Wolfe, the staple in fashion photography was the society photograph – think the elegantly coiffed and polished woman, artificially posed against a decadently decorated studio setting. In contrast, the Dahl-Wolfean woman is cast in a more natural setting, against the backdrop of the everyday: she is a woman who travels, reads, goes out, takes photographs, visits places. Hers is a woman who is independent and free.

It was for this very reason that Dahl-Wolfe was employed by Harper’s Bazaar editor Carmel Snow. The affected visual sensibility of the society photograph was becoming outdated, and upon seeing the photographs of Dahl-Wolfe, Snow knew at once that “at last [Bazaar was] going to look that way I had instinctively wanted my magazine to look.” Dahl-Wolfe and Snow, along with fashion editor Diana Vreeland formed a legendary dream team which brought Bazaar to new heights by symbolising the refreshing and powerful zeitgeist of the fashion industry in its post-war resurgence.  Significantly, they also put forward the ‘female gaze’ in an industry saturated with and dominated by men.

Credit: The Fashion and Textile Museum

In spite of the casual candidness of her photos, Dahl-Wolfe was known to be highly methodical and meticulous. She assumed control over the entire working process – from the conceptualization to the realisation of a shoot. Going to great lengths to ensure the colours of her photos shone in all their splendour, she would correct her proofs to ensure that the printed page did justice to her vision. Much of her profound mastery over the manipulation of colour can be traced back to her extensive study of painting and colour theory during her education at the San Francisco Art Institute, from 1914 to 1919. Dahl-Wolfe is lauded as being able to exploit colour to create a “symphonic feast…[balancing] contemporary colours, making dull red and greens as sonorous as an oboe concert … [conjuring] harmonies from surprising combinations”, in the words of critic Vicki Goldberg.

Also featured in this exhibition is Dahl-Wolfe’s work with Hollywood celebrities and key figures in the cultural scene of her time. For instance, her shoot of Lauren Bacall (better known as Betty Bacall), on the cover of Harper’s Bazaar is credited as launching the latter’s career as an actress by catching the eye of director Howard Hawks. Alongside her portraits of these Hollywood starlets are similarly relaxed and intimate portraits of writers and poets like Christopher Isherwood and W.H. Auden, and film directors like Orson Welles.

‘Louise Dahl-Wolfe: A Style of Her Own’ could have been even more effective had it perhaps explored Dahl-Wolfe’s influences on her contemporaries and successors and how they have worked in her tradition. Nonetheless, it is a visual feast for the eyes, and one which successfully attests to her liberated and progressive photographic style. Far ahead of her male contemporaries, Dahl-Wolfe radically fashioned a modern female vision, one that would revolutionize the fashion industry for many years to come.

‘Louise Dahl-Wolfe: A Style of Her Own’ at The Fashion and Textile Museum runs till 21 January 2018. Tickets are £6 for students.

Featured image credit: The Fashion and Textile Museum

Kay Ean Leong