New York

Louise Dahl-Wolfe

Louise Dahl-Wolfe’s first published photograph was bought by Vanity Fair in 1933 and is titled Mrs. Ramsey. Dominated by a vegetable, the photogenic if inedible turban gourd, yet evidently concerned with the actuality of Mrs. Ramsey, an Appalachian woman wizened beyond gender, its effect is that of “still life with hardship.” Dahl-Wolfe, who chose the pictures in this exhibition and provided blueprints for their display, may like it for this very reason. Her encomium to young photographers runs along the lines of “study painting, learn to design,” as she once did, and this picture must strike her as the earliest distributed proof of having practiced what she now preaches. It does not (and none of her very few inert shots do) pertain to the subject with which she is so famously identified.

As part of the legendary postwar triumvirate at Harper’s Bazaar that also included Diana Vreeland and Carmel Snow, Dahl-Wolfe was primarily an idea woman, and ideas in her case were wholly entwined with action. Location shoots and models with overt personalities were two of her innovations, and if an elephant or two found their way into her frame they are there as scenic interest and not, as they would later be for Richard Avedon, as compositional clout. Until the ’60s modeling itself was more of a semiprofession than it is now, populated with society girls, and others en route to other things, who came equipped with their own makeup and a blithe nonchalance for the clothes they were pitching. Dahl-Wolfe, the professional on hand, established complicity and a sense of easy banter with her models, and each clinched moment, each carefree extravaganza, is a targeted invitation to the collections. Clothes, in her pictures, are fun friends.

This show was organized in a fairly literal, thematic way so that almost every grouping of photos amounted to a little essay on a kind of element, situation, profession, or technique. In the fashion-action section there were seven images involving water, then five with hats, then a sequence having to do, it seemed, with identity (rear views, twins), followed by a stylish sweep of shifting focuses featuring sunglasses, sphinxy gazes, and two of Dahl-Wolfe’s best postglamour shots, circa 1950—Mary Jane Russell, Plan de Paris, and Suzy Parker by the Seine, posing for Betty Fenn in Balenciaga dress.

As strictly as space permitted, the numerous portraits were arranged according to occupation, with performers, fashion nabobs, writers, and artists forming distinct friezes. Performers, especially stage performers, as a group fared least well, as though thrown off balance by Dahl-Wolfe’s directing style, and in limbo between their public and private selves. Monsters of fashion and monstres sacrés were triumphant: Carmel Snow in profile, a Vatican emmisary; Vreeland, also in profile, à la Garcia Lorca; the heiress Millicent Rogers magisterial and resplendent, a Minerva of mode; Carson McCullers thinking bad thoughts, smoking a cigarette, looking 12; Colette expecting the world at her bedside; Jean Cocteau, sweetly engaging, as though his life depended on it.

Color, the area of Dahl-Wolfe’s most purely formal accomplishment, occupied the core of this installation, and demonstrated how uniformly it is used today—in the work of Deborah TurbeviIle, for instance. Dahl-Wolfe produced 85 covers and over 600 pages of color for Harper’s between the late ’30s and late ’50s, usually with an 8-by-10-inch camera and with many lenses, and this selection strongly suggested their variousness. For a Turkish promotion the colors have the intensity of oriental fabric dyes, for interior tableaux selling lingerie they are soft and close in register, and in all of them you get “mood” and also see the clothes.

Dahl-Wolfe once caused a commotion in Nashville, where she was having a show, by being quoted in a newspaper as saying that photography isn’t art. This opinion, added to her belief in formal art training, perfectly defines the parameters of her work: no pomposities, and a good, original picture with a purpose. Dahl-Wolfe’s eye is for the girl, the clothes, and that aspect of conveyance which her former associate Vreeland called pizzazz.

Lisa Liebmann