Louise Dahl-Wolfe was born in 1895 in San Francisco, where she was christened Louise Emma Augusta Dahl (L. E. A. D.) because her mother believed initials which spelled a word to be lucky. In 1914 she enrolled at the San Francisco Institute of Art, where classes included casting, painting and composition, anatomy, and design. It was here that she took her first lessons in colour, which she later described as ‘profound experiences,’ writing, ‘you have to study colour like the scales of a piano. It’s really scientific. Later you can depend on whether you have either taste or imagination.’ Colour would become central to Dahl-Wolfe’s practice; in her career atHarper’s Bazaar she was a pioneering colour photographer.
During her studies, Dahl-Wolfe was heavily influenced by European modernism: she saw paintings by the Impressionists and Post-Impressionists at the 1915 World Fair and was ‘overwhelmed’ by seeing a performance by Diaghilev’s Ballet Russes. Her primary interest was painting and this remained her passion, even when she was established as a photographer: ‘I always wanted to be a painter. I’m a frustrated painter, you know.’ It was an encounter with the photographer Anne Brigman that first inspired Dahl-Wolfe to pick up a camera: ‘I was bowled over by my first look at Brigman’s slides […] overwhelmed by the possibilities of the camera, about which I knew nothing […] I had to get a camera!’
In 1933, Dahl-Wolfe’s portrait, ‘Mrs Ramsey – Tennessee Mountain Woman,’ was published in Vanity Fair. A black-and-white documentary style image, ‘Mrs Ramsey’ was later included in the 1937 exhibition ‘Photography: 1839-1937’ at New York’s Museum of Modern Art. It was in 1936 that she joined the staff at Harper’s Bazaar, where she stayed until 1958. Dahl-Wolfe produced elegant, polished images for Harper’s, frequently picturing her models posing with works of art or in romantic outdoor settings (she was one of the first commercial photographers to attempt colour photography outside the studio).
Relatively little has been written about Dahl-Wolfe. Though renowned in her lifetime for her talent and her mastery of colour technologies, she has since been somewhat overshadowed by her male contemporaries, notably Horst, Richard Avedon and Erwin Blumenfeld. Predictably, there has been undue attention paid to her looks. In Notable American Women, Susan Doyle Platt writes, ‘Dahl herself was short and squat, and not at all beautiful in her appearance, a striking contrast to her models.’ Unkind judgements of Dahl-Wolfe’s looks are often accompanied by an unpleasant tone of disbelief, as if to say, ‘how could someone so plain produce something so beautiful?’
Since her death in 1989, Dahl-Wolfe’s work has been exhibited at the Grey Gallery at New York University, the Women’s Museum in Washington and the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York. Her archive is held by the Centre for Creative Photography at the University of Arizona, Tucson.
Bellafante, G., ‘What Dahl-Wolfe’s Eye Created in a Lens,’ The New York Times, 6th June 2000.
Dahl-Wolfe, L., A Photographer’s Scrapbook, London, 1984.
Heron, L. and V. Williams, Illuminations: Women Writing on Photography from the 1850s to the Present, London, 1996.
Ware, S., ed., Notable American Women: A Biographical Dictionary..Vol. 5, Harvard, 2004.