Louise Dahl-Wolfe

Louise Dahl-Wolfe
Louise Dahl-Wolfe (1895-1989)

"I believe that the camera is a medium of light, that one actually paints with it."

Born in San Francisco in 1895 into an upper-middle class Norwegian family, a young Louise Dahl was raised with relatively few restrictions.  Dahl first began taking pictures in 1923 after studying for six years at the San Francisco Institute of Art.  Dahl began her studies as a painter in 1914.  As a disappointed painter, she turned to interior design and picked up photography as a hobby.  At the San Francisco Institute of Art, Dahl was influenced by her color theory and life-drawing classes.  She learned to love and appreciate the fluid lines of the human body and the vibrancy that color can bring to a composition.  Dahl's love of fashion was sparked by Bakst's costumes for Diaghilev's Ballets Russes, and her eye for the surroundings, by the ballet's sets of Picasso, Braque and Derain.  In 1926, Louise Dahl went on an 18-month tour of Europe and North Africa where she met fellow artist and later husband, Mike Wolfe.  The two married and moved to a log cabin in Gatlinburg, TN, deep in the heart of the Smoky Mtns.  Without electricity or running water, Louise Dahl-Wolfe photographed the mountain folk by the light of oil lamps.  Vanity Fair published Tennessee Mountain Woman (in Cheekwood's permanent collection) in November of 1933 and Dahl-Wolfe became an overnight sensation.  The pride and dignity of the mountain woman made the photo a classic hallmark of posters.  

Riding on her newfound success as a photographer, the couple moved to New York City where Dahl-Wolfe established a studio.  In 1936, Harper's Bazaar made her an offer that would forever change her life.  Dahl-Wolfe accepted the position as fashion photographer on the condition that she had complete artistic control.  She was often consulted on layouts, pagination, cropping, and color correction.  Working with editor Carmel Snow, Dahl-Wolfe helped make Harper's Bazaar a premier fashion publication and would help "define the post-war look of American women."  

Dahl-Wolfe brought natural beauty and glamour to a field dominated by affected images of impassive models posed like sculpture.  A pioneer of color photography and one of the first to leave the studio, Dahl-Wolfe photographed "healthy outdoor women" in bold and romantic settings including palaces, WWII ruins and even her own velvet and lace draped bedroom.  She would photograph nudes draped in shadows or white towels, interweaving sensuality with innocence with the goal of "making a woman look like a Queen."   In the course of her long career at Harper's Bazaar, she managed to produce 86 cover images and thousands of pictures for the magazine.  When Carmel Snow, editor and comrade, left the magazine, a young male editor replaced her.  Although Dahl-Wolfe's perfectionist tendencies and temper earned her the nicknames "Queen Louise" and "Vesuvius" around the office, the new editor decided to enter her studio and steal a quick peek at the work in progress.  She quit immediately. She continued to photograph a few more years before retiring.  She continued to exhibit her work up till her death in 1989 at the ripe old age of 94.  Her work has been exhibited at the Grey Gallery at New York University, the National Museum of Women in the Arts in Washington, and at the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York.
(American, 1895 - 1989)

Back to Top