Dahl-Wolfe, Louise (1895–1989)

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Dahl-Wolfe, Louise (1895–1989)

American photographer who excelled at fashion, still lifes, portraits, and documentation. Born in San Francisco, California, in 1895; died in Allendale, New Jersey, in 1989; attended California School of Design (now the San Francisco Art Institute); studied painting with Frank Van Sloan; married Meyer (Mike) Wolfe (a sculptor), in 1928 (died 1985); no children.

Acclaimed for her impeccable color sense and her innovative use of naturalistic decors in fashion photography, Louise Dahl-Wolfe was probably the foremost female fashion photographer during the early postwar period. Born and raised in San Francisco, California, she attended the California School of Design (now the San Francisco Art Institute), where she studied painting with Frank Van Sloan. Her work at the time was also greatly influenced by artist Rudolph Schaeffer, an expert on color. Dahl-Wolfe's interest in photography began when she met Anne W. Brigman in 1921, but she did not actually purchase a camera until 1927, when she toured Italy and Morocco with Consuelo Kanaga . In the interim, she designed electric signs in New York and worked for a decorator in San Francisco.

In 1928, Dahl-Wolfe met and married sculptor Meyer Wolfe, whom she later credited with fostering her career by helping with her work and sharing household duties. They spent their early years together in San Francisco, where Dahl-Wolfe was employed as a photographer for an interior decorator. In 1932, she moved to a cabin in the Tennessee Smoky Mountains and produced still lifes and portraits of the mountain people. Returning to New York in 1933, she met Frank Crowninshield, then publisher of Vanity Fair, who ran the photographs in his magazine. Receiving favorable notices, Dahl-Wolfe began working freelance, producing advertising and fashion photographs for Women's Home Companion and various department stores, such as Saks Fifth Avenue and Bonwit Teller.

In 1936, she became a staff photographer for Harper's Bazaar, a post she held until 1958. In deference to her talent, the magazine allowed her the privilege of working out of her New York studio, although she also traveled extensively on fashion shoots. During her tenure, Harper's featured her photographs on 86 covers, used over 600 of her color images, and printed hundreds more of her black-and-white shots. In addition to her extraordinary use of color, Dahl-Wolfe was known for the naturalness of her settings and a delicacy of style that was attributed, at the time, to her gender. (She felt that her style had more to do with her studies at the California School of Design than with any female trait.) Dahl-Wolfe also worked for Sports Illustrated and Vogue before retiring to New Jersey in the mid-1960s. She died in 1989.

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