A pioneering and inventive photographer, Toni Frissell (1907 – 1988) effectively utilized a still camera to capture an abundance of action. Working for Vogue and Harper’s Bazaar, Frissell took photography out of the studio, shooting unprecedented fashion photos of active women outdoors. She was the first female photographer for Sports Illustrated, and was one of the only women taking sports photos for several decades. Frissell also took battlefront photos during World War II, utilizing her emotive images to encourage support for women and African-Americans in the military.
A famous American photojournalist and fashion photographer, Frissell began working for Vogue in 1931 and was Vogue’s first female staff photographer. There, she broke new ground with her fashion images by placing her subjects in nature and in motion. By employing the use of imaginative angles, Frissell captured more than just exterior good looks. She pioneered the fashion photograph into a snapshot of life.
Frissell started her career as a fashion photographer for such magazines as Vogue from 1931 to 1942 and Harper’s Bazaar from 1941 to 1950, but upon the U.S.’ entry into World War II in 1941 she volunteered with the American Red Cross and spent time both in the U.S. and at the European front documenting the war.
One of her most well-known images,“Weeki Wachee Spring, Florida” was published in Harper’s Bazaar in December 1947. Over the years, it has been used for several album covers including “Undercurrent” by Bill Evans and Jim Hall, “Tears in Rain” by This Ascension, Osvaldo Golijov’s “Oceana,” and “Whispering Sin” by the Beauvilles.
Frissell’s leap from fashion photography into war reporting echoed the desires of earlier generations of newswomen to move from “soft news” of fashion and society pages into the “hard news” of the front page. On volunteering for the American Red Cross in 1941, Frissell said: “I became so frustrated with fashions that I wanted to prove to myself that I could do a real reporting job.” Frissell aggressively pursued wartime assignments at home and abroad, often over her family’s objections. During World War II, she became the official photographer of the Women’s Army Corps.
Along with volunteering her photographic services to the American Red Cross, she also worked with the Women’s Army Corps, and Eighth Army Air Force during World War II. On their behalf, she produced thousands of images of nurses, front-line soldiers, WACs, African-American airmen, and orphaned children. “The worst part of war, in my opinion, is what happens to the survivors,” she wrote.
Frissell’s images of the African-American fighter pilots of the elite 332nd Fighter Group were instrumental in encouraging positive public attitudes about the fitness of African-American to handle demanding military jobs.
A photographer keeps a biographical record with every new assignment and the photographer’s subjects help shape his destiny. –Toni Frissell