Portraits of Women by Women: Photographers Capture Legends

Posted by: National Museum of Women in the Arts

The following article appeared in the Holiday 2003 issue of Women in the Arts

Since the second half of the 19th century, when Julia Margaret Cameron (1815-1879) photographed elite Victorian society and Gertrude Kasebier (1852-1934) set up a commercial studio in New York, women photographers have played significant roles in the evolution of their art form. Like artists working in other media, women photographers fought to keep stereotypes out of their profession. In the 20th century, women photographers honed their craft, engineering equipment, patenting their inventions, and recording images that were compelling—from the Depression era social commentary of Dorothea Lange to the stylized industrial compositions of Margaret Bourke-White. Others such as Louise Dahl-Wolfe and Barbara Morgan depicted women in the worlds of literature, fashion, dance, and the theatre.

Portraits of Women by Women: Photographs from the Permanent Collection, on view from December 22, 2003, to May 16, 2004, celebrates the achievements of cutting-edge women photographers as well as the noteworthy women who were their subjects. This installation of 27 works offers an opportunity to see photographs that can only be exhibited occasionally due to the light sensitivity of the medium. Louise Dahl-Wolfe and Berenice Abbott are well represented in this display from the museum’s collection.

The parents of Louise Emma Augusta Dahl (1895-1989) primed their daughter for success by purposefully naming her so that her initials spelled the verb “lead.” Upon marrying sculptor Meyer Wolfe in 1928, she hyphenated her last name instead of dropping her maiden name—an act of independence that set the stage for many such acts over the course of her lifetime. The San Francisco native built her first dark-room enlarger herself. She fabricated it from an ordinary tin can and an apple crate, and utilized part of a Ghirardelli chocolate container as a reflector. There-after, no matter who employed her, she insisted on working with her own equipment in her own studio or on location – an unheard-of practice.

Dahl-Wolfe published her first photograph, Tennessee Mountain Woman (1933), with Vanity Fair, but the most production years of her career were spent at Harper’s Bazaar. From 1936-1958, she, together with fashion editor Diana Vreeland and editor-in-chief Carmel Snow, transformed Harper’s Bazaar into a major trend-setting magazine. Dahl-Wolfe’s 1942 photograph of Vreeland shows her wearing one of her characteristic ensembles—a plain white blouse accented by a stylish bolero hat and a decorative rose.

Although she primarily worked in color as a fashion photographer for Harper’s Bazaar, Dahl-Wolfe was also charged with photographing artists, writers, actors, and other creative personalities under the editorial direction of Snow. In these assignments, Dahl-Wolfe found that black-and-white portraiture offered her more artistic freedom. During her 22 years at the magazine, she photographed Hollywood film stars Ingrid Bergman, Dolores Del Rio, and Marlene Dietrich, French novelist Colette, and Standard Oil heiress Millicent Rogers, among many others. Dahl-Wolfe credited her 1943 image of Lauren Bacall at a Red Cross blood drive with jumpstarting the teenager’s acting career—this photo caught the attention of movie producers and garnered Bacall an invitation to Hollywood. Dahl-Wolfe also photographed Bacall looking wholesome despite wearing nly undergarments in beauty-product mogul Helena Rubenstein’s bathroom. Like Dahl-Wolfe and her editors at Harper’s Bazaar, Rubenstein befriended talented young women and encouraged them to pursue careers such as modeling and acting.

Dahl-Wolfe’s photograph of then 23-year-old Carson McCullers is another striking image of youth. Taken four years into Dahl-Wolfe’s career at Harper’s Bazaar, Carson McCullers (1940) accompanied the author’s novella Army Post (later called Reflections in a Golden Eye) in the magazine’s October and November 1940 issues. That same year, McCullers published her first novel, The Heart is a Lonely Hunter. Dahl-Wolfe’s portrait shows McCullers from the chest up, with arms behind her head, smoking a cigarette. The photograph employs a circular, or ringed arrangement of design elements. McCullers’s face forms a pale sphere and draws the eye initially. Her black hair, dark back-ground, and a shadow on her neck encircle and frame the face and set off the white of McCullers’s starched shirt.

Three years younger than Dahl-Wolfe, Berenice Abbott (1898-1991) began photographing people when she was in her 20s. Early in her career, Abbott applied a talent for capturing the essence of her subjects to every-thing she photographed. She documented New York City for the Federal Arts Project during the 1930s and ’40s; created close-up scientific prints during the 1940s and ’50s; and fashioned “portraits” of American life through the 1960s. Consistent throughout her entire oeuvre is a love of detail and non-manipulated compositions.

Born in Springfield, Ohio, Abbott left the Midwest to study art in New York, Paris, and Berlin, before settling in New York in 1929. Her introduction to photography came in 1923, where she assisted American-born Dadaist Man Ray in his Paris darkroom. Once settled in New York, Abbott took a position at the New School for Social Research, where she started the photography program. She taught at the New School for more than 20 years, from 1934-58. In addition to continuing her own creative work, Abbott wrote the influential Guide to Better Photography, as well as many other books and articles. She also obtained patents to several photographic devices over the course of her career.

Like Dahl-Wolfe, Abbott photographed distinctive personalities of her time, many of whom were prominent women involved in the arts. Her first solo exhibition, held in 1926 at Le Sacre du Printemps in Paris, featured portraits of the avant-garde. Soon after, Abbott photographed such famous women as theatre actress Eva Le Gallienne, fashion designer Coco Chanel, gallery owner Betty Parsons, and poet and dramatist Edna St. Vincent Millay.

Eva Le Gallienne (c. 1927) epitomizes Abbott’s 1920s style of portrait. This photograph, taken one year after Le Gallienne founded the Civic Repertory Theatre on Broadway, portrays the actress in a theatrically exaggerated attitude of ease, draped in a large arm-chair. Abbott never posed her sitters; she preferred instead to let them arrange themselves in ways that made them comfortable and revealed their personalities. Le Gallienne gazes melodramatically in front of her, avoiding eye contact with the viewer as if she were on stage. Abbott’s use of strong light and dark contrasts in the photograph recalls theater lighting and further contributes to our recognition of Le Gallienne as an actress. A beam of light illuminates her face and hands, while a curtain of darkness frames the rest of her body. Abbott balances the composition with a classical urn, an item that associates Le Gallienne with the Greek theater tradition.

It is fitting that Louise Dahl-Wolfe and Berenice Abbott would photograph noteworthy women artists. They, like their subjects, were leaders in their chosen field. Both Dahl-Wolfe and Abbott built on the legacy of excellence handed down to them by Cameron, Kasebier, and others, and, in turn, paved the way for the many professional female photographers to come.

Catherine McNickle Chastain is assistant professor of art history at North Georgia College and State University.

Chastain, Catherine McNickle, Portraits of Women by Women: Photographers Capture Legends,’
Women in the Arts (Holiday 2003): 18-21, back cover.

1. Louise Dahl-Wolfe’s Lauren Bacall in Helena Rubenstein’s Bathroom. Chastain, ‘Portraits of Women,’ 19.
2. Louise Dahl-Wolfe’s Carson McCullers. Chastain, ‘Portraits of Women,’ 20.
3. Louise Dahl-Wolfe’s Marlene Dietrich in Destry Rides Again. Chastain, ‘Portraits of Women,’ 20.
4. Louise Dahl-Wolfe’s Diana Vreeland. Chastain, ‘Portraits of Women,’ 19.
5. Kay Simmon Blumberg’s Berenice Abbott Playing the Concertina. Chastain, ‘Portraits of Women,’ 20.
6. Berenice Abbot’s Edna St. Vincent Millay. Chastain, ‘Portraits of Women,’ 21.
7. Berenice Abbot’s Coco Chanel. Chastain, ‘Portraits of Women,’ 21.
8. Berenice Abbot’s Eva Le Gallienne. Chastain, ‘Portraits of Women,’ back cover.

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