It’s the first class of my MA Documenting Fashion: Modernity, Films and Image in Europe & America, 1920-60 for the spring term on Friday – and we will discuss one of my favourite subjects – midcentury women photographers. Focusing on Louise Dahl-Wolfe and Toni Frissell we will look at the ways their work shaped ideals of femininity, and, importantly, how it connected to shifts within American design – of clothes and magazines.
Both photographers worked in a number of genres, which included documentary, portrait and fashion and it’s interesting to think about their approach to each. For Frissell, her love of natural gesture, and connections between bodies can be seen both in her photographs of college girls leaping with joy in their chic readymade fashions, and her intimate images of soldiers being briefed during the Second World War. For Dahl-Wolfe, a more painterly conception of the textures and space of a composition is always apparent, as well as a love of light and colour that permeates her oeuvre.
Another aspect of their work that I want to discuss with my students is the ways their photographs were used in high fashion magazines – thinking about firstly, the practicalities of fashion photography and secondly, thinking about the readers’ experience of their images. To do this, we will consider their collaborators, including Dahl-Wolfe’s work with Diana Vreeland and Carmel Snow, the costs and difficulties of location shots, and their rivalry – the latter evidenced in letters from Toni Frissell’s archive at the Library of Congress.
By looking at magazine design, we can then situate the images within their original context – how they relate to the text and pictures around them, the size and feel of the magazine and how they ‘spoke’ to readers.
As I said, this is a favourite area of mine, I love learning about the ways women worked, created and collaborated in this period, and I hope my students will also enjoy our seminar, rethinking fashion photography from a number of perspectives.