Frissell, Toni (1907–1988)

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Frissell, Toni (1907–1988)

American photographer who specialized in fashion, children, documentary, and sports. Born Antoinette Wood Frissell on March 10, 1907, in New York City; died on April 17, 1988, in Saint James, New York; third child and only daughter of Dr. Lewis Fox (teacher of clinical medicine at Columbia University and medical director of St. Luke's Hospital) and Antoinette Wood (Montgomery) Frissell; attended private school in New York City; graduated from Miss Porter's School, Farmington, Connecticut, 1925; married Francis McNeill Bacon III (a broker), in 1932; children: son, Varrick Bacon (b. 1933); daughter, Sidney Bacon (b. 1935).

The daughter of a socialite and a New York doctor, photographer Toni Frissell's early interests were art history and the theater. After graduating from the fashionable Miss Porter's School, she played bit parts in several Max Reinhardt productions, then toured with his company both in the United States and Europe during the late 1920s. Returning to New York in 1930, she wrote advertising copy for Stern's department store before joining the staff of Vogue as a caption writer. "They finally fired me," she later recalled, "because I couldn't spell." The magazine, however, did publish some of her early fashion photographs in 1931 and, in 1933, offered her a contract. Innovative in approach, Frissell was the first to photograph her formally dressed models outside, in natural sunlight, instead of in the usual studio setting. Striving for a natural look, she didn't pose her subjects either. "I try to make them look not like Powers girls modeling," she explained, "but like human beings." Frissell was with Vogue for 11 years, before signing on with Harper's Bazaar.

In 1932, Frissell married Francis McNeill Bacon, III and had two children, Varrick and Sidney, who, with their friends, were often the subjects of her "photo-illustrated" books, notably A Child's Garden of Verse (1944). Reviewers praised her photographs of children for their natural unposed quality, although Edward Steichen once complained that her youngsters were too scrubbed and too well dressed, and their parents made too much money.

Frustrated with fashion and wanting a true reporting job, Frissell volunteered to serve as a pictorial historian for the Red Cross when the war began. She spent ten weeks photographing in England and Scotland in 1941 and later covered assignments in other parts of the world for the American Army Air Forces and as a freelancer for a number of publications. Employed by the Office of War Information, Frissell also served as official photographer of the Women's Army Corps. She received a star and two overseas stripes for her work at the front as a wartime correspondent.

Frissell was under contract to Harper's Bazaar from 1941 to 1950 and worked for Life and Sports Illustrated in the 1950s. Her photographs and illustrated articles also appeared in a number of national magazines, including Collier's, Good Housekeeping, Ladies' Home Journal, Holiday, McCall's, Fortune, This Week, and Arts and Decoration. Her work was part of Steichen's Family of Man exhibition at New York's Museum of Modern Art in 1955. Her fashion photographs appeared in the exhibit Fashion Photography: Six Decades, sponsored by the Emily Lowe Gallery, at Hofstra University, 1975–76, and in History of Fashion Photography, at the International Museum of Photography, George Eastman House, Rochester, New York, 1977–78.


Moritz, Charles, ed. Current Biography 1988. NY: H.W. Wilson, 1988.

Rosenblum, Naomi. A History of Women Photographers. NY: Abbeville Press, 1994.

Rothe, Anna, ed. Current Biography 1947. NY: H.W. Wilson, 1947.

Barbara Morgan , Melrose, Massachusetts