Fashion of a woman, wearing a long gown, floating in water, Weeki Wachee Springs, Florida, 1947.
Toni Frissell (1907-88) was one of the greatest photographers of the 20th-century. During her lifetime, Frissell produced a staggering amount of diverse work including fashion photography, photojournalism, and portraiture.
In 1971, she donated her entire photographic collection of some 340,000 items to the Library of Congress. This included “270,000 black-and-white negatives, 42,000 color transparencies, and 25,000 enlargement prints, as well as many proof sheets.” Some of her work has yet to be processed for public use.
Frissell came from a well-established and fairly affluent family. Her grandfather was the founder and head of the Fifth Avenue Bank in New York. Having the stability of a wealthy family allowed Frissell to pick and choose what she wanted to do. She originally trained as an actress then worked in advertising before taking up her career as a photographer. Her brother Varick, a documentarian and filmmaker, taught Frissell the basics in photography. After Varick was killed in a freak explosion (along with 26 others) during the making of his feature film The Viking in 1931, Frissell started her career as a photographer in earnest. She apprenticed herself to Cecil Beaton (whose influence can be seen in her early photos) and began working as a fashion photographer for Vogue.
It was more than obvious from the outset Frissell was a natural photographic talent. Her fashion work pioneered the use of outside locations, often photographing models in a highly cinematic style against famous monuments or exotic locations. She claimed she preferred working outside as she didn’t “know how to photograph in a studio.” Whether this was her being disingenuous or not, Frissell did shoot the majority of her work outdoors using natural light.
When America entered the Second World War in 1941, Frissell volunteered her services as a photographer to the American Red Cross. She worked with the US Airforce then became the official photographer for the Women’s Army Corps. After the war, Frissell still continued with her fashion work but mainly concentrated on photojournalism and portraiture—capturing some of the most famous names of the day from politicians like Winston Churchill and the Kennedys, to artists like Frida Kahlo, and Hollywood stars like Elizabeth Taylor and Rex Harrison.
Unlike many other photographers who find one style and keep reproducing it time and again, Frissell developed, changed, and pioneered many different styles throughout her career. Her work is now rightly regarded as among the most influential and iconic imagery of the 20th-century.
Fashion model Lisa Fonssagrives poses with an English bobby in background on a railway station for Harper’s Bazaar in 1951.
Fashion shoot, Washington DC, 1949.
Back view of fashion models in swim suits for Harper’s Bazaar, 1950.
More iconic photographs, after the jump…