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"Lauren Bacall", silver gelatin print.

LOUISE DAHL-WOLFE


by Mario Cutajar

(G. Ray Hawkins Gallery, Santa Monica) In The Book of the Courtier, an influential Renaissance text that lays out the qualities that define the ideal gentleman, Baldesar Castiglione has one of his loquacious mouthpieces declare that ultimately it all comes down to one thing: nonchalance. Four centuries later, "stay cool," according to Brian Ferry, was "still the main rule," but style rather than lineage provided the basis for aristocratic pretension and the ascension of the new style-elite was aided in no small measure by photography's inherent ability to make coolness iconic. The association between glamour and photography is so fundamental that it is impossible to conceive of glamour, in its modern sense, outside of it.

Louise Dahl-Wolfe's contributions to the genre of glamour photography include the pioneering use of natural lighting and a masterful use of both value relationships and color contrasts that reflected her training as a painter. Born in San Francisco in 1895, she attended the California School of Design (later to become the San Francisco Insitute of Design) hoping to become a painter. When one of her teachers criticized her still lifes as superficial she decided to turn a fault into an asset and become a decorator. She also took up photography but her work was not published until a decade later, in 193 3, when a series of pictures of the mountain people living in the Great Smokey Mountains of Tennessee appeared in Vanity Fair. She was picked up by Harper's Bazaar in 1936, after Carmel Snow had assumed editorship and brought in Diana Vreeland to be her fashion editor.

Formal European elegance was in vogue at this time, but the crew at the magazine struck out in a new direction and Dahl-Wolfe, a versatile professional who could supply whatever was demanded of her, became by editorial fiat a pioneer of the "wholesome" American look whose recent revival we associate with the name of Calvin Klein. The hallmark of this new style was an understated, blase elegance, almost neo-classical in tone yet, at the same time, both modern and unmistakably American.

A photograph of Lauren Bacall sitting on the edge of a bathtub and arching forward recalls any number of 18th century images of Diana at her bath. But like Shakespeare done in modern garb, it highlights not only the agelessness of the theme but also the incontrovertible contemporaneity of the sitter. Night Bathers, in which a swimsuited woman stands in the background by the edge of a pool like the living mirror image of the stone nymph in the foreground, goes even further in exploiting the ironic potential of this device.

Dahl-Wolfe's assignments at Harper's Bazaar extended beyond fashion photography. She also photographed the likes of W.H. Auden, Christopher Isherwood, Orson Welles, Edward Hopper and Collette. Richard Avedon would later credit her with paving the way for the supremacy of American fashion photography. More importantly, she played a major role in defining an era, stretching from the late thirties to the early sixties, whose casual grace and sophistication we can only envy.