Volume 1, Issue 1, Article 10 - 2018


Behind the Scenes with Louise Dahl-Wolfe and Toni Frissell:
Alternative Views of Fashion Photography in Mid-Century America 

 

BY REBECCA ARNOLD


 

Abstract:

This essay explores the process and labour involved in creating fashion editorials. It is focused on the work of Louise Dahl-Wolfe and Toni Frissell, as case studies of photographers who worked at America’s two leading fashion magazines: Harper’s Bazaar and Vogue. Images that show these women “backstage” form the basis of this analysis, to expose the images’ compositions and the teams of people involved in their creation. Both photographers worked at a key moment in American fashion, as designers such as Claire McCardell created a simple, interchangeable wardrobe of readymade clothes that catered to the increasingly active lives of middle-class women. They were significant to the “Modern Sportswear Aesthetic” that emerged during this period and which exploited Kodachrome’s rich tones to compose alluring images that showed sportswear as adaptable and fashionable. Frequently shot outside, or using carefully contrived sets, their imagery provides a case study for the ways fashion’s creative workers collaborated to construct convincing visions of sportswear’s emergent style. Drawing upon Bruno Latour’s theories of organization, this article examines these networks of people, working to varied briefs and deadlines to create each magazine issue. From contact sheets and shots of fashion editors and models, to glimpses of the photographers’ efforts to find the right angle, this essay uses Dahl-Wolfe and Frissell’s photobooks and archival materials, including memos between Bazaar Editor-in-Chief Carmel Snow and Frissell, to challenge the idea of the seamless fashion page and look at the professional work and negotiations necessary to create a successful image. 

 

Keywords:

  • Louise Dahl-Wolfe

  • Toni Frissell
  • Diana Vreeland
  • fashion photography
  • American fashion
 
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Life magazine’s 1937 article “Reporting Paris Styles is a Business” showed the Harper’s Bazaar and Vogue fashion teams at work. Carmel Snow and her editors are photographed at the shows and as they organize shoots of garments they have seen at couture salons. Illustrators Jean Cocteau and Christian Bérard are depicted drawing the latest fashions on live models, while Jean Moral photographs them out on the streets of Paris. Models are caught changing, and a sense of urgency and speed infuses every frame as each must enact her role quickly and efficiently.

       The spread is self-reflexive: a magazine article that analyses magazine practice, but one that is also revelatory in its attention to fashion as a site of work. While Life magazine was a general interest magazine, its fashion pages and covers meant its visual analysis of the Paris collections related to its own reportage, as well as that of Vogue and Harper’s Bazaar’s. The article catalogues industry professionals’ activity, planning, and labour, as they see, digest, and represent a wealth of fashion information, working to tight deadlines. When seen in relation to other backstage fashion images of the period, these photographs provide a glimpse into fashion as process, and importantly, they also present fashion as organization and collaboration. This essay focuses on editorial images, as published in magazines, as well as photographs that reveal the process of creating fashion shoots, to examine the hidden relationships between those working on fashion magazines and the labour and finances that go into their production. 

 
 

These fashion pages represent designers’ and magazine staff’s collective imagination deployed in the creation, not just of images, but also of women, or at least their ideal.

 
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This is a collective imagination that requires those working on a shoot to produce imagery that expresses their own creative ideas, in line with their given brief.

       This analysis focuses on two photographers: Louise Dahl-Wolfe at Harper’s Bazaar and Toni Frissell at Vogue. Their work is significant since their careers coincide with a key moment in the crystallization of American fashion photography and magazine aesthetics and culture. Each worked at a major fashion title as editors sought to establish new visual and graphic ideals in light of modern art, design, and popular culture, as well as technological change. When analyzed together, Dahl-Wolfe and Frissell’s fashion editorials, and images of them working behind the scenes at shoots, expose fashion as a more complex, nuanced process than these images might imply. Importantly, they also reveal fashion as work, rather than just fantasy.

       Bruno Latour’s ideas on collaboration and institutions enable these images to be contextualized in relation to the fluid nature of creative organization that is intrinsic to fashion magazines. His essay, “‘What’s the Story?’ Organizing as a Mode of Existence” of 2011 forms the basis of this analysis, since it relates directly to organization as reality and idea. While Latour examines his university’s attempts to rethink its meanings and structure, his theories are equally applicable to fashion magazines’ creative work, which also relies upon a nebulous idea of reputation, inherent qualities, and status. These values are hard to quantify, and in attempting to do so, Latour argues that institutions reveal far more fluidity and change than they perhaps understand themselves, or wish to show to the outside world. In particular, he observes that the nature of organizations, and of organizing, reveals that there are “many different characters inscribed into many contradictory scripts with different deadlines … as to the structure it is never more than what has been inscribed in the script by various authors” (Latour 9). His emphasis on multiple authors, rather than a single auteur, is apt to fashion editorial planning and creation, and underscores fashion photography as a product of coordination and collaboration. This interpretation allows for a nuanced view of magazine work culture, since it reveals fashion creation within an organization as fluid and in movement, or in Latour’s words, “the whole is always smaller than its parts — as long as we are in the act of organizing.” His stress on “parts,” in this case the individuals and their interpretations of each brief, allows us to think about a fashion magazine as reliant upon constellations of workers, each potentially as significant as the editor-in-chief and/or the magazine’s brand. This reconfiguration of emphasis implies that rather than Vogue, for example, resting upon a stable idea of its brand, it is instead in constant flux: its status, aesthetic, and content continually reimagined by its many workers. This dynamic connects with Latour’s insistence upon rethinking the common “individual versus the system dichotomy” and considering an organization, in this instance a fashion magazine, as a “ rhythmic variation.” In this way, the magazine can be conceived of as two interrelated elements: its workers’ cyclical movements to create content, which is compiled into each individual issue, and, subsequently, each issue which becomes a material product that records the rhythmic, monthly reorganization of the whole (Latour 9). A case study, in this instance two photographers’ backstage imagery, therefore highlights collective work and organization, with workers responding to a series of briefs and deadlines, to bring focus to editorial fashion’s collective nature. 

Editing American Fashion Magazines


 

Vogue was already established as a fashion authority in the 1930s, but Harper’s Bazaar was to evolve during this period, as Carmel Snow assembled a team that could reinvent the title in line with contemporary mores. Snow, along with Fashion Editor Diana Vreeland and art director Alexey Brodovitch, “have often been described as a ‘triumvirate.’” However, in actuality Bazaar functioned as a hierarchy, with Snow at the top. The art director’s purism was a foil for the fashion editor’s exuberance, but the editor-in-chief controlled the look and tone of the magazine (Diana Vreeland: The Eye has to Travel 34). Edna Woolman Chase, Editor-in-Chief of Vogue, and Carmel Snow at Harper’s Bazaar needed to maintain their magazines’ identities, despite myriad people working on each issue. The difficulties inherent in such a process are palpable in Chase’s correspondence. In her role as Editor-in-Charge of Vogue’s American, British, and French editions, Chase sent letters to assert policies for the brand as a whole. She was clear, for example about the use of costly techniques, and brought economic reality to her creative teams, writing in 1936:

Colour is frightfully expensive. A page of colour must justify itself on one of two counts and preferably on both. Either it must be such a lovely thing in itself that it gives you great pleasure to look at it or it should be so full of actual fashion information that it fulfils in a practical sense what it may lack in decorative beauty. (Chase and Chase 260)

She was conscious of the magazine’s role as fashion informant for its readers and, significantly, its need to continue good relations with fashion houses and advertisers, concerns that prompted memos to contributors, including Bérard, to complain if their imagery lacked attention to a garment’s details (Chase and Chase 260). 

 
 

Fashion magazines constantly balanced between fantasy and reality in their aesthetic and content, and therefore editors had to choose carefully the constellations of artists, writers, and editors that worked on each issue.

 
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For Chase, as for Snow, it was crucial to keep a constant check on all aspects of the process to ensure a coherent end result. It was, of course, also essential that every element of each shot, each editorial, each layout would contribute to individual and overall editors’ visions. Vogue’s Editor-in-Chief from 1952–63, Jessica Daves, described this balance in relation to those involved in the process of production: “Good teamwork is vital. At the same time, each person in the studio is concentrating on his separate problem,” and this involved the varied, sometimes conflicting concerns of photographer, editor, and model as they focused on each outfit and its representation (Daves 150-1).

       Such comments reflect the fluid and sometimes unpredictable structures and practices that underpin fashion magazine production. Latour noted his university colleagues’ discussions of the institution’s “DNA” or “essence,” as though there was a solid core of elements “that should ‘dictate’ our present choice[s],” for new projects and approaches. However, he found that this “essence” is not as clear or fixed as it might seem, and meant different things to each member of staff. It was also interpreted in relation to varied points within an organization’s evolution, as though a specific moment in its history embodied its definitive state and meaning, which prompted Latour to ask “which past to inherit?” (3-4). This suggests that the very idea of organizational “essence” is a mythic ideal of stability that masks constant movement, and multiple interpretations. This complexity reflects the ways each fashion editorial is a product of a different set of workers’ ideas of what the magazine represents and what it will become with each new issue. It also speaks to fashion’s inherent need to look backwards and forwards simultaneously. Fashion magazines must also grapple with this apparent contradiction, as editors have to. As Latour notes, they must continually “reorganize” to maintain an identity that seems constant, yet is always in flux. While institutions, such as fashion magazines, may look to their heritage to imagine their own present and future, there are so many people and projects involved in this process that a single, stable “essence” is not achievable, or in reality desirable. What Latour instead described is a sequential interpretation of each brief and deadline as various team members respond, often acting in different ways on separate assignments. His description of this process as “rhythmic” is apt to fashion magazines, as it reflects their constant reorganization into monthly issues (Latour 9). It also relates to the ways art directors plan layout; for example, Alexey Brodovitch’s practice of placing all the pages sequentially on the floor, so that he could “see” each issue’s rhythmic progression between advertising and editorials and text and image. His design practice embedded organization into the magazine aesthetically and materially. Like his peers, including Vogue’s Dr. Mehemed Fehmy Agha, he planned each issue’s visual pace, and the rate at which a reader might turn pages. A reader may pause over slower editorials that used more white space, for instance, and speed up over a quick succession of bright advertisements. However, readers are unlikely to consider the ways this interaction has been guided.