Louise Dahl-Wolfe


Louise Emma Augusta Dahl (L.E.A.D) was born November 19, 1895 in San Fransisco, California (her mother thought it was good luck if the initials of a child's name spelled a word). Both of her parents were from Norway. Her mother's family moved to the United States where they started a farm in Iowa after her father had lost a lot of money in the timber industry. Louise's father left Norway and came to the U.S. in 1872 working as an engineer designing engines in Pennsylvania. Her parents met and married in San Fransisco, where they lived with Louise and her two sisters for many years. 


In 1914, Louise became a student at the San Fransisco Institute of Art. While there, her days were spent doing cast and life drawings, painting and composition, anatomy, color, and design. She drew with charcoal in life classes and erased mistakes with the rolled up inside of sourdough bread. The first course taught in color at art schools was taught by Rudolph Schaeffer, whom she had the privilege of studying under.

Louise had always wanted to be a painter and if painting didn't work out she wanted to go to New York after art school to study interior decorating. However, because of the death of her father in 1919, she stayed in San Fransisco and took up a job designing electric signs. Then, a "wonderful accident": a friend of the photographer Anne Brigman introduced the two, after meeting, Brigman invited Louise to her studio (Brigman was part of the Stieglitz group, which was a group devoted to getting photography recognized). After looking at some of Brigman's photographs of nudes in ice caves and in cypress trees, she fell in love with the possibilities of the camera. It was at this moment she decided that she must get a camera. 


In 1923, Louise left San Fransisco for New York to study interior decorating and architecture. After a year in New York City, Louise became an assistant to one of the top decorators in San Fransisco, Beth Armstrong.

In 1926, after her mother was killed in a car accident, she moved to Europe with some friends. While traveling to meet a friend in Africa, she came across an American Artist named Meyer (Mike) Wolfe. They hit it off instantly and married in San Fransisco shortly after. 

She began taking photography very seriously and after the wedding she purchased a 5 x 7 view camera with a wide-angle lens. Not too long after, her and her husband were traveling back to New York where she was hired  by Woman's Home Companion magazine to do food photographs. Around the same time, a friend of hers, Anne Wille, was working for Women's Wear Daily and suggested that Louise take her photographs to Vanity Fair. The editor, Frank Crowninshield decided to publish her photos in the November 1933 issue. After reviewing her photos he asked to meet Louise in person. She agreed, and in their meeting he told her that she had something great, and asked her to become apart of their team at Vanity Fair doing portraits of prominent people in the Conde Nast Studio. She turned down his offer, saying that "I could never work in someone else's studio. I am of an independent nature and need my own surroundings".

Shortly after, under the direction of George Green she started working for Saks Fifth Avenue taking photos for catalogs and advertisements. She enjoyed working with Green, because he gave her freedom and allowed her to choose her own backgrounds.

Around this same time, a friend of hers suggested that she try fashion photography. She admitted to knowing nothing about it, but figured no one else did either. Her friend let her use her showroom models and the clothes, under the conditions that she could use the photographs in the women's pages of her newspaper. This was a great experience for Louise. She got to practice lighting on them and figure out ways to get the women in her photos to look chic, elegant, beautiful, and most important, natural. 

Her first true advertising account was Crown Rayon, a division of the Viscose Corporation, in 1934. The dresses used were black crepe with white collars, cuffs, and accessories. Shooting indoors was easier because she could control the lighting and exposures better. Then to her good fortunes the Weston exposure meter surfaced which took away these mishaps, making it easier for her to shoot outdoors, which Louise became widely known for. 

HARPER'S BAZAAR                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                     

In 1936, Louise started her long career of 22 years at Harper's Bazaar fashion magazine. Her job as a fashion photographer was to create beautiful photographs that spoke out about a designers' new clothing item in a natural way. Throughout her time there, the magazine published more than 600 photographs of hers, including 86 covers and thousands of black and white pictures. In the beginning of her career at Harper's she was doing the average color photography with the still lifes and accessories as main subjects. However, she longed to work with people. After a year of work she got her wish as she started doing portraits and fashion.

At Harper's Bazaar, during this time, Louise worked under one of the best magazine editor's of all time, Carmel Snow. She worked under many other great people as well, including the fashion editor, Diana Vreeland, art director Alexey Brodovitch, managing editor Frances McFadden, and others. In her autobiography, Louise states that "her time at Harper's Bazaar would not have been as wonderful if it weren't for her determined and intelligent staff".

Her career at Harper's Bazaar ended in 1958, when her colleagues Carmel Snow and Alexey Brodovitch resigned from their positions. The new art director visited her at her studio and this took Louise by surprise and took away her enthusiasm. She had never been told how to photograph or do her job hardly once since her time with the magazine and now it was happening. She enjoyed her freedom too much to put up with this so she herself resigned from Harper's Bazaar.


Throughout her years as a photographer, Louise went through many cameras as they advanced in their technology. One in particular, caused three worn-down vertebrae, a trip to the hospital and a traction; the seven pound Rolleiflex and 3 1/4 x 4 1/4 Graflex. After these incidents the doctors ordered her to balance her cameras on a tripod, which to her caused restrictions that just wouldn't fly. 

In her autobiography, A Photographer's Scrapbook, Louise makes a point of telling her readers that she would not have been such a success in her work if it weren't for her schooling at the San Fransisco Institute of Art. The classes that she took and her experiences with her teachers opened her mind up to the world and her surroundings. These experiences made it easier for her to see beyond just a photo. It allowed her to create beauty and in many people's eyes, art.

-----------------------------------------------------------------------------------------                                                                                                                                                                                                                         Text References:                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                      

Center for Creative Photography. (1996-2000). Louise dahl-wolfe: the american image. Retrieved from http://www.tfaoi.com/aa/2aa/2aa204.htm

Dahl-Wolfe, L. (1984). A Photographer's scrapbook. New York: St. Martin's/Marek.

Museum of Contemporary Photography. (2005-2009). Louise dahl-wolfe. Retrieved from http://www.mocp.org/collections/permanent/dahlwolfe_louise.php

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