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Toni Frissell (1907-1988)

Biographical Essay | Image Sampler

Biographical Essay


Toni Frissell wearing sunglasses and holding ski poles
Toni Frissell in sunglasses at ski resort. Photo, between 1940 and 1969,

From the early 1930s through the 1960s, Toni Frissell's photographs appeared in some of America's top magazines--Harper's Bazaar, Vogue, Town and Country, Sports Illustrated, and Life--providing images of fashion, celebrities, sports, and lifestyles of the wealthy. She began photographing fashion using her own aristocratic friends as models. During World War II she broadened her range, by documenting women's contributions to the war both at home and on the battlefront. After the war, she became the first female staff photographer for Time Inc.'s, new magazine, Sports Illustrated while continuing to work freelance. Frissell proposed and shot her own stories for leading magazines, photo-illustrated three books for children, and enjoyed one-person shows in the U.S. and Europe. One theme running throughout her long career is the way she depicted women. In an interview for the 1979 book, Recollections, Frissell recalled, "I have always admired strong women, women of adventurous mind, women active in doing original things. When I was young, an early woman leader in Congress, Isabella Greenway, took me to Paris with her daughter. I admire the grand ladies I've known, but I think of myself as a sportswoman. Being a woman shouldn't interfere with the job." (1)

The Library of Congress was honored to become the archive for Toni Frissell's work through her generous gift in 1970 of an estimated 350,000 photographs. Her black-and-white negatives, color transparencies, contact sheets, and prints are in the Prints & Photographs Division. A selection of photographs are already online with more and more being scanned. Frissell's own selection of over 1,800 of her best and most representative photographs are available in LOT 12452. Her papers, primarily records of her work as a photographer, are in the Manuscript Division, with a finding aid overview.

Early Life

Frissell was born into a privileged Manhattan family. Her father, Lewis Fox Frissell, was medical director of St. Luke's Hospital and taught clinical medicine at Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons. Her mother, Antoinette Wood Montgomery, came from a long line of prominent New England families with a strong tradition of public service to the nation. The family maintained an apartment in Manhattan, vacationed regularly at Beacon Hill House in Newport, Rhode Island, and traveled often to Europe and Bermuda.(2)

As children, Frissell and her brothers were encouraged and indulged. "I started photography while still a child. My brothers and I carried our box Brownies [snapshot cameras] at home and when we went on trips to Europe. I was the youngest in our family and the only girl. I...was the water-pistol carrier for my brothers' war games. I thought that things I should be doing, like attending parties, were tiresome."(3) The Frissell children were also athletic and competitive, sailing and playing tennis at Newport in the summer and skiing in Switzerland when the sport was still new.(4) The relentless competition and constant need to prove herself left their mark on Frissell. Her daughter Sidney remembered her mother as "incredibly chic... completely impractical...fearsomely competitive and unbelievably pushy...She loved men and disliked most women unless they were as nonconforming and had as much flair as herself."(5)

The Frissell family adventures came with risks. In 1923, when Toni herself was 16, her 18 year-old brother Montgomery died in a climbing accident in Italy.(6)

From 1927 through 1930, Frissell joined her cousin Rosamond Pinchot, niece of Pennsylvania governor Amos Pinchot, acting in the theater company of innovative Austrian director Max Reinhardt.(7) In 1928, the cousins visited Toni's brother Varick in Mexico where he was filming political unrest for an early newsreel company. Watching Varick at work convinced both women to take up photography more seriously.(8) After Frissell returned to New York, she went to work--an unusual choice for her aristocratic circle. She initially sold dresses at Stern's, a store noted for its high fashion.(9) When she suggested a perky caption for an advertisement, her mother showed the published drawing to Edna Chase, editor-in-chief of Vogue, who hired Toni as a caption writer.(10) But in 1931 tragedy struck the Frissell family again. Varick, 28, died in March in a shipboard explosion off Newfoundland while making the film "The Viking." (11) Frissell's engagement to Russian Count Serge Orloff-Davidoff (1905-1945) ended when his mother objected to her being an American and called her son home. And Vogue fired her, because she could not spell--an essential talent for writing captions.(12)

Her life in disarray, Frissell retreated with a camera to Newport with her mother who was seriously ill. Frank "Crownie" Crowninshield, a neighbor in her family's New York apartment building and an editor of Vanity Fair, lent her a camera and encouraged her to photograph her socially prominent friends. She photographed them "having a good time doing such things as surfing on rubber mattresses and crabbing." Through Crowninshield, Town and Country published selections of those pictures in a series "Beauties at Newport."(13) With the help of fashion magazine editors. Frissell made her photographs appealing to a sophisticated market.

Frissell's casual snapshots of beautiful young men and women brought the "snapshot aesthetic" to Vogue magazine, which had long favored highly posed, artificially lit portraits of debutantes, and socialites as a means to point up high fashion. Between 1931 and 1933, she sold photographs on a freelance basis. She recalled later, "They gave me a roloflex [sic Rolleiflex] and little by little I built up my hundreds of feet of ruination of film, or bad exposures, or forgetting to open the camera...ruining a film that I've already taken."(14) Stop-action spontaneity, candid-looking informality, and outdoor settings characterize her photographs.

Frissell had to maintain a stern work ethic to pursue her career. In 1930, early in her time at Vogue, while working as a caption writer, she was charged with locating props for photographer Cecil Beaton.(15) He later wrote about her, awkwardly saying that "...Frissell was never accorded her public due, but that does not worry her. Instead she worked good-humoredly, knowing that perhaps the chances are against her making any sort of special catch." He concluded "She is a daisy-like woman who knows what she is about--and what she is about is charming."(16) Without meaning to, he also provided a chilly insight into the reception most female photographers received from the magazine world.

Along with her charm, Frissell had wealth and social position, and magazines wanted access to the world she inhabited. By her example, and through her photographs, Frissell helped break the Victorian social convention that kept a woman's name from appearing in print other than on the occasion of her birth, marriage and death. Her subjects were attractive and healthy. Frissell photographed women at play, wearing the sports clothes that department stores promoted and that top-flight magazines wanted to publish.

Her notes on negative sleeves and contact sheets show that she directed lab technicians on developing her negatives and printing them. The contact sheets became the means by which editors and Frissell herself selected images for publication, marking them with instructions for printing enlargements and for magazine pages.

New York's place at the center of magazine publishing in the United States proved crucial to Frissell's career. Throughout the 1920s and '30s, a technical revolution in presses, inks, and paper contributed to significant changes in magazine design, first evident in Europe, especially France, Germany and Russia.(17) Publishers like Henry Luce at Time Inc. and editors like Carmel Snow at Vogue sought to lure European talent to New York. By the middle of the 1930s, the rise of fascism caused numerous professionals, including magazine editors, designers, and photographers, to become refugees, and many landed in New York. Immigrant Dr. Mehemed Fehmy Agha became the designer who shaped Conde Nast magazines Vogue, Vanity Fair, and House and Garden (1929-1943).(18) Russian aristocrat Alexey Brodovitch taught art and design in Philadelphia before he became art director of fashion magazine Harper's Bazaar (1934-1958), and Carmel Snow encouraged him to hire former German sports photographer Martin Munkacsi to photograph sportswear.(19) At Vogue, in 1931, the German fashion photographer Horst P. Horst brought his own austere approach to working in the studio, creating dynamic illusions with lights that mimicked the out-of-doors.(20) Frissell responded quickly to this stimulating environment.

Camera technology was changing as well. Where fashion and portrait photographers had once remained in the studio, where they could manipulate large heavy cameras and control lighting, Frissell arrived just as smaller cameras became common. For years she used a Rolleiflex 2 ¼ square camera, like the one that Crowninshield lent her, along with a Super Ikonta (2 ¼ format film) and a Leica (35mm film). Weighing approximately two pounds each, these small, light cameras permitted her to move and shoot quickly. They had powerful lenses that allowed her to work in conditions that once would have been considered too dark or too difficult for the large-format cameras. Eventually she added two more Rollies (one equipped with flash) so that she or an assistant could reload the film with barely a break in shooting.

Frissell learned to shoot fashion photographs from an angle, generally from the left corner looking diagonally across the picture plane but sometimes from the top right down to bottom left, for dramatic presentation. She also liked to give the impression of stop-action movement.(21) A natural athlete herself, she did not hesitate to do whatever was necessary to get a good angle for her photos. As a mark of her success, Frissell was put on contract in 1933 and had her first Vogue cover photograph on June 1, 1937.(22) She climbed high on the observation deck at the recently completed Rockefeller Center to show her models "rising above the heat of the summer."(23) For a shoot about water sports in Hawaii, she climbed to the top of a catamaran in 1938 and got a Vogue cover for her efforts.(24) She requested a substantial raise, from $2,400 to $3,600 per year but Vogue's art director Kahn objected, not liking her or her senior colleague Cecil Beaton, but Frissell stayed on.(25)

An Unusual Woman

Frissell's natural athleticism, charm, and innate artistic talent emerged under extraordinary circumstances that enabled her to establish a career at a time when few women operated in the magazine photography world. Her family connections set her apart from most Americans. She may also have felt driven to succeed because her brothers had not lived to fulfill their expectations and dreams. But surely she also felt motivated by the examples of her ancestors, great-grandmother Mary Whitney Phelps and her grandmother Mary Ann "Mollie" Phelps. After Union General Nathaniel Lyon was killed at the Battle of Wilson's Creek in Missouri in August 1861, great-grandmother Mary and grandmother "Mollie" took Lyon's body to their home for burial until his family could reclaim it. For her courtesy, Congress rewarded Phelps with $20,000 that she used to start an orphanage and Abraham Lincoln made her a dispenser of benefits to those orphaned by the Civil War.(26) Frissell's great-grandfather John Smith Phelps served as governor of Missouri 1877 to 1881 and Mary served as first lady. After Mary's early death in 1878, her daughter, now "Mollie" Phelps Montgomery, assisted her widowed father.(27) Mollie, married to newspaper publisher and transportation developer James Boyce Montgomery, held many prominent roles in civic organizations in Oregon where they settled. She also accompanied American soldiers to Europe during World War I to do volunteer work.(28) These grandmothers left a legacy of social leadership and service. In Frissell's experience, women engaged in public activities was not confined to the past. Her family knew Isabella Selmes Greenway, the first U.S. congresswoman in Arizona history, and Toni joined Greenway on a trip to Paris as a companion for her daughter.(29)

Frissell's actress cousin Rosamond Pinchot introduced her to writers, actors, and movie stars and moguls in the 1920s and '30s both in New York and Hollywood. They included New Yorker writers Dorothy Parker(30) and Alexander Woollcott (31); movie actress Lillian Gish,(32) socialite and Vanity Fair editor Clare Booth Brokaw (later Mrs. Henry Luce, wife of the publisher of Time and Life(33)) , Fred Astaire (34) and his sister Adele,(35) cosmetics creator Elizabeth Arden,(36) and portrait photographer Arnold Genthe who photographed Frissell's Zogbaum cousins in California.(37) Frissell turned these social acquaintances and friendships into photo opportunities, which her well known subjects used to enhance their own prestige. As "talkie" movies became the rage in the 1930s, Frissell included stars, producers, and wives of producers as her subjects whom she photographed at their homes in California.(38)

Frissell differed from most other contemporary women magazine photographers in another important way: she was married with children. On September 9, 1932, Frissell married financier Francis "Mac" McNeill Bacon, III, a member of her social circle. Photographs show that he was as tall and as athletic as she, he enjoyed socializing, and could tolerate the frequent absences her assignments caused. It was also important that Mac's mother, Pauline Post Bacon, supported Frissell's career. Pauline had been a photographer herself in Paris near the end of the nineteenth century and, in 1918 at the request of General Pershing, went to France with other American women to inspect stations for female munitions and YMCA workers and Red Cross nurses.(39)

Woman and man seated on grass near each other
Tony [sic] and Mac Bacon. Photo in Rosamond Pinchot MSS, box 2, scrapbook 1918-1937, 4, p. 48, Library of Congress Manuscript Division.
Frissell with back to camera photographing three models in winter outerwear on a set with artificial snow as her husband, Mac, and daughter, Sidney, relax in the foreground
Toni Frissell photographing three models in winter outerwear on a set with artificial snow as her husband, Mac, and daughter, Sidney, relax in the foreground. Photo, ca. 1940.

The young Bacons maintained an apartment in New York City but considered their home to be at Sherrewogue, the 1689 Long Island estate near of the town St. James where Mac's parents lived. Their son Varick was born in 1933 and daughter Sidney in 1935. Even with two young children, Frissell continued to photograph professionally. In October 1939, Popular Photography made her the subject of the article, "Toni Frissell: Outdoor Specialist," where she credited part of her success to help at home: "It was a challenge to combine marriage, raising children, and my career, but I was fortunate enough to have a superb old-fashioned governess to help me take care of the children."(40) Frissell could speak with confidence because the governess, in fact, had been the same one who took care of her as a child. Frissell did many of her assignments at Sherrewogue where she entertained the models and adopted a variety of the animals used in her shoots.

By the end of the 1930s, action shots were replacing formal studio fashion shots throughout the fashion magazine industry. Frissell, quite unconsciously, was spearheading a revolution, an irony worthy of at least a shrug from the scornful Condé Nast art director, Dr. Mehemed Fehmy Agha.(41) Confident and well-traveled, Frissell enjoyed the world market that magazines offered her. She sought out subjects who appealed to her sense of style and adventure. In 1937, for example, Frissell photographed Mexican artist Frida Kahlo holding the leaf of an agave plant for the series titled "Señoras of Mexico" for Vogue.

Woman in long light-colored dress standing, reaching behind her towards large agave plant
Frida Kahlo (Senora Diego Rivera) holding the leaf of an agave plant, during a photo shoot for Vogue magazine, "Senoras of Mexico." Photo by Toni Frissell, 1937.

Often, while on assignment, she turned from her assigned topics to photograph the people who watched her working. As a result, her archive includes many unpublished pictures from Chile, Argentina, Brazil, Guatemala, Peru, and Portugal, as well as the American South.(42) Throughout her career, Frissell practiced what is now called street photography even though few of those photographs appeared in magazines. Examples include Portugal

Woman and two boys looking out from passageway
Medieval street in Alfama, Lisbon, Portugal. Photo by Toni Frissell, between 1940 and 1949.

and two men in Charleston.

Two Black men sitting on a stoop with cigars in their mouths, looking towards the camera
Two African American men sitting on stoop, Charleston, South Carolina. Photo by Toni Frissell, 1962.

Expanding Horizons (1940s-1950s)

By the end of the 1930s, Frissell felt constrained by assignments that focused exclusively on fashion and celebrity photography. Like many women in her social group, she was aware of the war tensions in Europe and volunteered to serve as a pictorial historian for the Red Cross. True to form, Frissell worked on projects that challenged the status quo, including hospitals in Louisville, Kentucky, where white Red Cross nurses cared for African American babies.(43) For a few weeks in November 1942, Frissell covered Eleanor Roosevelt's Red Cross trip to England and Scotland. The best known photo from this assignment shows a boy in rubble in bombed out London. (44)

Boy seated in rubble wearing coat looking up
Boy seated in wreckage of building after a bombing raid of London during World War II. Photo by Toni Frissell, 1945 Jan.

Several of Frissell's most daring friends worked for either the military or the diplomatic corps as the country became engaged in international strife. Frissell wanted to photograph the war, but could not get credentials for a long-term assignment from a magazine or newspaper. Instead, she reported on society women working for the Red Cross or the federal government. One important story subject was Oveta Culp Hobby who between 1941 and the end of the war in 1945, served as first director of the Women's Auxiliary Army Corps (WAACS). According to Frissell, Edward Steichen (then leading a documentary photography unit for the U.S. Navy) saw her story on Hobby and "wanted me to join the WAVES and join his photo unit out in the Pacific. I said 'I can't. I've got a family to raise.' And he said, 'Forget your family. Look at the Russian woman soldier. You can do it. I'll see to it that you get in my unit.' Well, I was sorry I didn't. And couldn't."(45)

Even with her proven track record, connections, and volunteer work, Frissell struggled for the accreditation required for military clearance to go to war zones. With the intervention of Oveta Culp Hobby, she photographed President Franklin Roosevelt inspecting the WAACS in training camp at Fort Oglethorpe, Georgia.(46)

Only as the war was winding down in early 1945 did she get the frontline experience she craved when the Writer's Review Board invited her, the only photographer among writers, to visit England, Germany, and Italy. As a guest of the Army Air Forces, she photographed soldiers and civilians on the battle fronts as well as the leading U.S. generals. Several of her photographs appeared in Life magazine.

Soldiers reclining amid ruins
U.S. soldiers resting among ruins of building, with soldier lying on plank in foreground, on the Siegfried Line, Rhone Valley, German Front. Photo by Toni Frissell, 1945 Feb.

In Italy, Frissell spent time with Margaret Bourke White, whom she admired tremendously.(47) When Frissell developed measles after photographing Pope Pius XII at the Vatican, she was quarantined in Italy and had the opportunity to arrange her own return passage to the U.S, free from supervision by the Review Board.(48) In March, Frissell worked with Colonel Benjamin O. Davis, Jr., then commander of the Tuskegee Airmen stationed at Ramitelli, Italy, with the African American 332d Army Air Force. He allowed her to photograph his men during daily activities such as loading bullets into a bomber, attending a pre-flight briefing session, and receiving cyanide packets before going out on a mission. She became the only professional photographer to photograph this unit, for the Army minimized coverage of these fighter pilots due to their race [view sample images].

Frissell flew home from Italy via North Africa, following the route Bourke-White had taken in 1942 when she photographed the Allied invasion of the coast of North Africa.(49) Frissell kept a vivid account of her experiences flying home via tropical airports. Back in New York in late April and early May--even before V-E Day on May 8--Frissell organized her overseas photographs and sent them on speculation to several magazines. Only Harper's Bazaar published a two-page story showing incoming troops at Bradley Air Field that appeared in July.(50) As other war reporters had discovered, the public at home had little interest in reliving the war. People wanted to move on.(51) An extensive display of Frissell's photographs of the war years appeared in 1995, in the exhibition, "Women Come to the Front," part of the Library of Congress's observance of the 50th anniversary of World War II.(52)

Frissell greatly enjoyed working for Harper's Bazaar under the innovative team of creative editor Carmel Snow and designer Alexey Brodovitch, who revolutionized American graphic design with his creative layouts, materials, and use of color and typography. But the Bradley Field story nearly brought this relationship to an end. Soon after the photographs appeared, Snow informed Frissell that she could no longer use her work, whether related to the war or fashion. As Snow wrote to Frissell, "Louise Dahl-Wolfe refuses to let me publish even your war work if she is to remain..."(53) In response, Frissell objected, pointing out that Dahl-Wolfe was not the only photographer who sensed competition, though other magazines handled it differently. "A good many fashion ideas that I submitted to the editors [at Vogue] found their way to the [John] Rawling lens."(54) Eventually the parties reconciled and Frissell received numerous additional assignments from Harper's Bazaar, although more skirmishes marked her employment. Despite her frustration with topical limitations and office politics, Frissell's photographs continued to be innovative.

After the war, Frissell published more and more of her work as a freelance photographer, continuing to focus on socially prominent women. In November 1946, she showed Nathali (Natalie) Nickerson Paine modeling the new swim suit style named for Bikini Atoll, where the atomic bomb testing took place.

Woman lying down, wearing bikini, her hand over her face
Fashion model Natahli (Natalie) Nickerson Paine wearing a bikini, lying on platform near water, Montego Bay, Jamaica. Photo by Toni Frissell, 1946 Nov.

One of Frissell's best known photographs was made at Weeki Wachee Spring in Florida where she photographed through glass to show the model floating along the surface of the water.

Woman in light gown seen from underwater
Weeki Wachee spring, Florida. Photo by Toni Frissell, 1947.

In April 1947 she received an award of distinctive merit from the prestigious Art Directors Club for "The Floating Boat" fashion photograph off the coast of Jamaica.(55)

Woman and a man in a long boat, photographed from above
Fashion model on edge of boat, man rowing, Montego Bay, Jamaica. Photo by Toni Frissell, 1946 Nov.

After the war, as male photographers returned to work--among them Irving Penn to Vogue, and Richard Avedon to Harper's Bazaar--Frissell clarified her own career objectives.(56) She wanted to expand the subjects she photographed and fortunately found additional ways to publish fashion photographs without needing fashion magazine assignments. Ironically, this strategy also gave her work a wider audience. Frissell began to sell her work to such new agencies as Pix, Rapho Guillumette Pictures(57) and Magnum. Beginning in 1943, she also acquired an advertising account for Garfinckel's, a Washington, D.C., upscale clothing store. Between 1943 and 1962, she provided Garfinckel's with well over 7,000 photographs, regularly photographing models against the city's iconic monuments

Contact sheet showing multiple frames from photo assignment, photographing a female model with Washington, D.C., structures in the background
Fashion model posing near Tidal Basin with Washington Monument in background. Photos by Toni Frissell, between 1943 and 1949.

Frissell also landed jobs for Pan American Airways to encourage civilian travel after the war. Sometimes friends such as Gertrude Legendre went with her to write articles for magazines and newspaper rotogravure sections.(58)

Woman aiming camera at boats in water
American tourist, Gertrude LeGendre, photographing boats in Lisbon, Portugal. Photo by Toni Frissell, 1945.

Children's books provided another outlet for this energetic photographer. She photographed her own and her neighbors' children to photo-illustrate A Child's Garden of Verses by Robert Louis Stevenson (1944), The Happy Island (1946) showed Bermuda (her lifelong vacation favorite), and Toni Frissell's Mother Goose (1948). Frissell selected photographs for an illustrated Bible and a children's etiquette book, also during the 1940s. These books were never published, possibly because she became discouraged after K[atherine] S[ergeant] White, fiction editor at the New Yorker derided her Mother Goose book for the vast material wealth displayed in its illustrations.(59)

Color photography

When Kodak introduced color film to the commercial market in the mid-1930s, Frissell acted on Crowninshield's advice to visit art galleries to study masters of the use of color. She particularly liked the Impressionists "And Vermeer, that lovely liquid light that comes throughout his paintings. I adore [John Singer] Sargent, the mood and the era and that's why you see so many of my pix in that era of the turn of the century which I love so. Rembrandt, of course."(60) She seems to have had little difficulty including color photography in her repertoire as the earliest color transparencies in her archive are quite accomplished. Her first color page in Vogue was published in September 1, 1936, and her first color cover on June 1, 1937, before color photography was introduced commercially at the 1939 New York World's Fair.(61)

Pursuing her own agenda (1950s-1971)

Although Frissell was paid for her work, the pictures hardly seem like "work for hire," as most paid newspaper and magazine photography is called. Her photographs are more of an extended autobiographical journey that she and her publishers allow us to follow. She built on her contacts to interest major magazines in stories she could photograph for them. Her oeuvre covered lives and traditions more than events. Through her friend Mary, Duchess of Marlborough, Frissell was able to make the photograph of Winston Churchill at Blenheim Palace in 1950 that became his official portrait and Lady Churchill's favorite.(62) When it was published, a young contemporary photographer sent her a note, "Dear Miss Frissell, Your Churchill is superb! It is a historical document. How fortunate that you two got together on that exact day. Congratulations, Irving Penn."(63)

On June 2, 1953, although she lacked access to the indoor coronation ceremony of Queen Elizabeth, she photographed the peers, including Winston Churchill, attending the outdoor ceremonies. Through her sister-in-law Pauline Bacon, Frissell photographed American-born Lady Nancy Langhorne Astor and her extended British family for Life and made pictures of the interiors and exteriors of their palaces.(64) Lady Astor's sister Irene was a model for the iconic Gibson Girl, turn of the twentieth century magazine symbol of the beautiful, independent American woman, a character much like Frissell herself.

Carmel Snow made a special request for Frissell to cover the Bouvier-Kennedy wedding on September 12, 1953, because of Frissell's personal connections to the bride.(65) She made photographs of the reception, posed celebratory group photographs and the bouquet toss but once Snow learned that others had also photographed the event, she refused to publish the images or pay Frissell's expenses. Frissell left Harper's Bazaar "in high dudgeon" and went to other opportunities.(66) Sadly, those wedding photographs did not come to the fore until the aftermath of John Kennedy's assassination ten years later when she had Magnum handle requests for them.(67)

Jackie and John Kennedy standing in wedding clothes, surrounded by members of the wedding party
Jackie Bouvier Kennedy and John F. Kennedy, in wedding attire, with members of the wedding party. Photo by Toni Frisell, 1953 Sept. 12.
Jackie and John Kennedy in wedding clothes, looking at each other
Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy and John Kennedy talking at their wedding reception, Newport, Rhode Island. Photo by Toni Frissell, 1953 Sept. 12.

While Frissell worked for fashion magazines, she frequently had the same models. Several models, unnamed at the time, have become highly sought after in recent decades, including Patsy Pulitzer, Joan Patterson, Barbara Mullen, Frances McLaughlin-Gill, Kathryn Abbe, Nathali (Natalie) Nickerson Paine, Natasha Rawson, Consuelo and Gloria O'Connor, and Sabin Cronin.

Frissell's eye for fashion and sports segued neatly into a new iteration. Throughout her career she produced coverage of trim, athletic women enjoying exercise. Her interests in leisure activities of the wealthy--particularly yachting and skiing--matched those of the new magazine Sports Illustrated, which started publication in 1954. In 1953, she became the first female staff photographer to cover the sports that would appeal to the elite clientele the publishers anticipated. Frissell's husband often appeared in her assignments. His friend, Harold Stirling [sic] Vanderbilt, with whom he invented contract bridge on a 1925 cruise with other Harvard classmates, was featured frequently in both bridge and yachting photos and at his farm with his wife Gertrude.(68)

Based on the couple's social contacts, Frissell suggested and produced stories such as a Wyoming dude ranch vacation with the families of Tom and Dick (Arthur) Watson who headed the computer company IBM; fox hunting in Pennsylvania; surf casting in California with restaurateur Trader Vic (69) ; descendants of architect Stanford White leaving their Thousand Islands summer home in the early morning for tennis on Rum Point (70); champion dog shows; skiing at Zermatt, Switzerland, with resort owner Paul Julen; the 1961 Harvard-Yale Regatta with Harvard law student Harry Fitzgibbons (71); and Italian high fashion designer Emilio Pucci and his leisure wear.(72)

Sports women were still a rarity, so most of the people she photographed were men. Years later, Frissell recalled, "When I was working for Sports Illustrated, I was delighted to be paid to go photograph all the sports that interested me anyway. Sports photography is in itself a sport. I'd rather stalk with a camera than a gun. It really is a game to catch people unawares and talk them into forgetting they are being photographed." (73) She left the staff as the magazine shifted from sports played by the wealthy to a broader audience to become the leading mainstream sports magazine in the United States.

The theme "Men of Distinction" runs throughout Frissell's career.(74) These men are posed as leaders and heroes, at their desks wearing suits, as with Norman Davis who headed the American National Red Cross; the officers of the World War II 8th Air Force planning a bombing mission; select generals in helmets; generals serving in the European Theatre of War; Colonel Benjamin O. Davis of the Army Air Force 332nd Fighter Group and the airmen wearing wheel caps and preparing for battle; diplomats serving in Washington, DC during World War II; IBM's Thomas Watson casually holding the propeller of his airplane; racquet ball champion, explorer and head of St. Paul's School Beekman Pool at his desk holding his reading spectacles as he reviewed a stack of papers (an image featured on her bookboard selection); President Eisenhower and future President Nixon riding triumphantly in a ticker tape parade in New York City; President-elect Kennedy incognito behind dark glasses at the exclusive Greenbrier Hotel.

Davis standing talking to four airmen near airplane
Col. Benjamin O. Davis at Ramitelli, Italy, March, 1945, presenting war bond for best kept A/C. Photo by Toni Frissell, 1945 March.
Man standing with hand on propeller of airplane
Thomas J. Watson, Jr., with airplane. Photo by Toni Frissell, 1962 August
Nixon standing and Eisenhower sitting with arms upraised in back of vehicle surrounded by police, crowd in background
Richard Nixon and Dwight D. Eisenhower riding in open convertible during Nixon's campaign for president. Photo by Toni Frissell, 1960 Nov.
Kennedy wearing dark glasses, looking towards viewer from behind pole
John F. Kennedy, wearing sunglasses. Photo by Toni Frissell, 1957 Sept.

Among the interntional leaders she photographed were German Chancellors Konrad Adenauer and Willy Brandt. She frequently provided "identity campaign" photographs of John Vliet Lindsay and his lifestyle while he was mayor of New York in the 1960s, but she provided no overtly political images until 1968 when she traveled to Miami to photograph Republican candidates and their staunch supporters such as the Houghton, Whitney, Rockefeller and Romney families.

During the Cold War that began in the late 1940s and lasted beyond her lifetime, Frissell largely ignored politics. She maintained contact with the Army generals she had met during World War II, including Henry "Hap" Arnold, Commanding General of the U.S. Army Air Forces. They often headed political or charitable causes after they resumed civilian life and wrote to her personally to participate but she generally declined to donate to their causes.

Seeking Recognition

In 1955, Edward Steichen included Frissell's 1944 photograph "My Shadow" in the internationally celebrated "Family of Man" exhibition which demonstrated a shared human identity in the face of the era's Cold War threats of nuclear war.(75)

Boy standing in sand, looking at shadow as he spreads out his arms and legs
"My Shadow" from A Child's Garden of Verses. Photo by Toni Frissell, 1944.

In the post-World War II, pre-Women's Lib era, women continued to struggle for employment and acknowledgment. Aware that her work was not receiving the recognition it was due, Frissell turned to the Watson family at IBM who sponsored the 1961 exhibition "The World Is So Full of a Number of Things," which traveled internationally, and to Hallmark in 1967 to create her own one-person show that traveled throughout the United States, "The View From My Camera."(76) In 1968 she was the only female photographer in a long list of men included in the "Man in Sport: The International Exhibition of Photography" exhibition at the Baltimore Museum of Art.(77)

Throughout these exhibitions celebrating her thirty years of magazine photography, Frissell continued to produce work for major publications. In 1966, Frissell turned to the Stanford White family, her Sherrewogue neighbors at St. James, Long Island, New York, for extended treatment of the children's vintage dress-up parties, their houses and social clubs, and buildings designed and constructed by their illustrious but ill-fated ancestor, architect Stanford White.(78)

Frissell often submitted ideas to Life magazine for which she provided coverage of the clothing, lifestyles, and homes of the wealthy.(79) She was careful about etiquette. No paparazzi she! She wrote to George P. Hunt, managing editor of Life, " of the reasons that I am able to get various people to pose is because they trust me to stay with the original promises."(80) She provided a story about the various branches of the extended Vanderbilt family. She showed the women dressed in elaborate turn-of-the-century gowns, a few of the men dressed in business suits, and their houses such as Biltmore in North Carolina in their best light.

Sometimes Frissell's magazine stories provided significant publicity for her subjects, such as her photos of beauty product creators Helena Rubenstein and Elizabeth Arden, clothing designers Elsa Schiaparelli and her granddaughter Marisa Berenson, and author William Styron who had recently written the popular but later controversial The Confessions of Nat Turner in 1967. In May 1967, Vogue published Frissell's extensive coverage of the achievements of Ann Bonfoey Taylor--aviator, tennis player, equestrian, Olympic qualifier in skiing, fashion model and designer and home decorator.(81) Taylor was the type of woman Frissell liked. [view sample images].

A descendant of strong women, Frissell compiled a history of strong American women when she prepared the 1968 Life story "America's Grandes Dames." (82) Women covered included, among others, society leader and columnist Alice Roosevelt Longworth and Civil Rights activist Mary Parkman Peabody who went to St. Augustine, Florida, at the request of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. to lead a sit-in by Blacks and whites at a racially segregated dining room.(83) Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis said of her friend, "[Toni] always knew just how far to push the envelope."(84)

In 1973, Vogue honored her with an article, "I'm Sixty-Six and I Love It." In 1975, she attended the opening of a one person show at the museum on the Texas King Ranch of her King Ranch photographs and the launch of a book written and edited by Time-Life reporter and executive Holland McCombs that was published by the renowned Morgan and Morgan house. Her photographs were featured in "Fashion Photography," 1975-1976, a traveling exhibition sponsored by the Emily Lowe Gallery at Hofstra University. The Library of Congress exhibited her work in "Women Look at Women," and "The History of Fashion," 1976-1977. In 1978 photo historian Margareta Mitchell interviewed her at her home in Sherrewogue for the 1979 book and exhibition, Recollections: Ten Lives in Photography, celebrating women photographers of her era.

Last Years

Toward the end of the 1960s, Frissell's health began to fail and her husband urged her to slow down. Concerned about her photographic legacy, she met with Alan Fern, Chief of the Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division, and arranged to donate her archive to the Library. She made photographs occasionally after that but primarily contributed selections of her existing photographs to books initiated by others. Her large collection took fifty years to fully organize and describe for public use, and required the Library to marshal additional resources. Over the years, Frissell's name slipped from public recognition. Now, as more of the photographs are digitizd, her images of famous people and their homes, clothing, activities and events--almost all of which are rights-free--will bring insights into the lives of Americans in the middle of the twentieth century. New audiences will see the timeless images that Frissell's friends and viewers admired. Thanks to the digitizing efforts of the Library of Congress, Frissell can regain her rightful place as one of the leading magazine photographers of the mid-twentieth century, and a superb documentarian of what she referred to as "a vanishing way of life."

The Bacons lived at St. James where Frissell's husband Mac died in 1982. In 1988, Frissell died of Alzheimer's disease. Her son Varick Bacon worked in New York City as a financier and later a music producer. Her daughter Sidney became a photographer like her mother, although she specialized in dogs rather than fashion.

In 1994, the last book that Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis edited was a tribute to her friend, the grand dame Toni Frissell. Frissell's daughter Sidney Stafford joined the project, and Toni's long-time friend George Plimpton wrote the text for Toni Frissell: Photographs 1933 to 1967 which served as the catalog for the companion exhibition of Frissell's photographs at the International Center of Photography.(85)

Conclusion: Frissell's photojournalism in perspective

Frissell was able to photograph a world that had recently opened more widely to women. She followed such ambitious, creative, determined pioneer photojournalists as Frances Benjamin Johnston and Jessie Tarbox Beals, who were active in the early 1900s. She made her own world the subject of her work, in the tradition of Gertrude Kasebier and Zaida Ben Yusuf. She worked at the same time as other women photographers represented in the Library's collections, including Margaret Bourke-White, Hansel Mieth, Dorothea Lange, Marion Post Wolcott, Marjorie Collins, Genevieve Naylor, Lillian Bassman, Louise Dahl-Wolfe, Mary Marvin Breckinridge Patterson, and Jackie Martin.

Frissell's blue blood social standing was crucial to her career, because she had social access to her peers; she showed them in a flattering manner; and maintained close, if sometimes brief, friendships with them, as shown by her personal correspondence. She also relied on long-term family connections of both her own and her husband's. Her close partnership with her husband extended her range of prosperous contacts and enabled her to avoid the gossip often attached to single women pursuing careers.(86)

Frissell helped make it socially acceptable to be featured in magazine stories. Upper class women as social leaders could appear in public and even as fashion models. She advanced the cult of celebrity by showing them stylishly coiffed and attired, even while romping and riding. Frissell's own wealth enabled her to maintain an affluent household with hired staff. She proved her technical competence even with minimal training at a time when celebrated European photojournalists were arriving in New York City, and there is little evidence that she sought museum study or associated extensively with the European émigrés who were changing U.S. photographic style.

It has taken many years to gain perspective and to assess Frissell's impact, but making her collection available online will show that she has had a sustained influence on fashion photography, reportage and the role of women in photography and society.


1 Margaretta K. Mitchell. Recollections: Ten Women of Photography. New York: Viking Press, 1979, 104. back to text

2 Toni Frissell Photographs, 1933-1967; Introduction by George Plimpton; Foreword by Sidney Frissell Stafford. (New York: Doubleday in association with the Library of Congress, 1994), xvii-xviii. back to text

3 Mitchell. Recollections, 102. back to text

4 Suemedha Sood, "Where did skiing come from?" BBC Dec. 22, 2010. back to text

5 Toni Frissell Photographs, 1933-1967, x. back to text

6 "Phelps Montgomery 'Monty' Frissell, 1905-1923," FamilySerch back to text

7 Scrapbook, Rosamond Pinchot papers, 1918-1955, Library of Congress, Manuscript Division, box 2, folder "1917-1937"; Anna Rothe, ed. Current Biography: Who's News and Why. New York: H. W. Wilson Company, 1947, 220. back to text

8 "A federal plane with its Rebel captors & me in Mexico--Varick," Scrapbook, Rosamond Pinchot papers, 1918-1955, Library of Congress, Manuscript Division, box 2. back to text

9 Toni Frissell papers, 1931-1975, Library of Congress, Manuscript Division, Personal File, 1938-1974, box 14. back to text

10 Toni Frissell Photographs, 1933-1967, xxii. back to text

11 Lewis Varick Frissell papers, 1917-1970, Library of Congress, Manuscrpt Division, finding aid: back to text

12 Toni Frissell Photographs, 1933-1967, xxi-xxiii. back to text

13 Mitchell. Recollections, 103 back to text

14 Toni Frissell, interview by Alan Fern, ca. 1970, transcript, Prints & Photographs Division Reference File, p. 61 back to text

15 Michael Gross, "Fashion: The Story Behind the Unsung Woman who Transformed Fashion Photography," Time, Sept. 12, 2016, back to text

16 Cecil Beaton and Gail Buckland, The Magic Image: The Genius of Photography from 1839 to the Present Day (London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1975), 190; Toni Frissell: Photographs 1933-1967, xi. back to text

17 Bodo von Dewitz, Robert Lebeck, et al, Kiosk: 1839-1973: A History of Photojournalism (Cologne, Germany: Steidl, 2001), 110-112; Marvin Heiferman, "Astonish Me!"" Mason Klein in Modern Look, Photography and the American Magazine, ed. Mason Klein, Maurice Berger, et al (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2020), 171; Thierry Gervais, The Making of Visual News: A History of Photography in the Press (New York: Routledge Press, 2017), 13. back to text

18 Mason Klein, "Modern Look: Photography, Innovation, and the American Magazine," in Modern Look, Photography and the American Magazine, 33. back to text

19 Klein, "Modern Look: Photography, Innovation, and the American Magazine," 39. back to text

20 "Horst P. Horst," Wikipedia, last modified June 28, 2021, to text

21 Mitchell, Recollections, 105.back to text

22 Toni Frissell papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress, Box 14, folder 11, Biographical Information. back to text

23 "City Compensations," Vogue, June 1, 1936, 72. Features Toni Frissell image with negative number LC-F9-01-3609-6-06back to text

24 "Surf's up!" Vogue, December 15, 1938, cover; Toni Frissell, interview by Alan Fern, ca. 1970, transcript p. 62.back to text

25 Caroline Seebohm, Man Who Was Vogue: The Life and Times of Conde´ Nast (New York: Viking Press, 1982), 221.back to text

26 "Mary Whitney Phelps," Daughters of Union Veterans of the Civil War, 1861-1865, accessed July 14, 2021, Phelp's papers are at Yale University, "Mary Ann Phelps Montgomery collection," to text

27 "The Life of Mary Anne Phelps Montgomery, 1846-1943," Margaret Montgomery Zogbaum, 1967 (C2114), The State Historical Society of Missouri, to text

28 "Americans Abroad Need Women's Aid More Than Ever: Mrs. Francis Bacon ...," New York Tribune, Feb 11, 1919, 9, ProQuest Historical Newspapersback to text

29 Mitchell, Recollections, 104.back to text

30 Address book, 1934, "Women", Rosamond Pinchot papers, 1918-1955, box 1, folder 1 back to text

31 Rosamond Pinchot papers, 1918-1955, box 4, folder "Friends" back to text

32 Address book, 1934, "Women", Rosamond Pinchot papers, 1918-1955, box 1, folder 1 back to text

33 Address book, 1934, "Women", Rosamond Pinchot papers, 1918-1955, box 1, folder 1 back to text

34 Address book, 1934, "Men", Rosamond Pinchot papers, 1918-1955, box 1, folder 1 back to text

35 Rosamond Pinchot papers, 1918-1955, box 3 back to text

36 Address book, 1934, "Couples: Mr. and Mrs. John Lewis", Rosamond Pinchot papers, 1918-1955, box 1, folder 1 back to text

37 Address book, 1934, "Men", Rosamond Pinchot papers, 1918-1955, box 1, folder 1. The Zogbaum cousins were children of Margaret Phelps Zogbaum, sister of Toni's mother Antoinette Wood Frissell. "Wilfrid MaynellZogbaum," Geni, 2021,; "James Boyce Montgomery family papers, 1873-1954," Archives West, finding aid prepared by Geoffrey B. Wexler, 2005, The Genthe portrait can be seen at: back to text

38 "They Live in Beverly Hills and Santa Monica,"" and Margaret Case, "Hollywood Right Now," Vogue, May 1, 1941, 64-65.back to text

39 Toni Frissell, interview by Alan Fern, ca. 1970, Tape 1, p. 2; American Biographical Library. The Biographical Cyclopedia of American Women, vol. ll, Daughters of America, "Helen Gilman Noyes Brown," 130. Information shared by Eileen Brookfield, daughter-in-law of Toni Frissell, in email to Beverly W. Brannan, March 19, 2003. back to text

40 "Toni Frissell--Outdoor Specialist," Popular Photography, October 1939, 32-33; 108; Mitchell, Recollections, 103. back to text

41 Seebohm, 221. back to text

42 Amy Shapiro, Millicent Fenwick, Her Way (New Brunswick, New Jersey: Rutgers University Press, 2003), 85. back to text

43 Toni Frissell Collection. Jobs for Kentucky Red Cross work, including "Black babies, white nurses--Nurse's Aide Bathing Colored Baby, Belleview Hospital, September 1942." Second prize winner in October contest of American Red Cross National Photo Awards. back to text

44 Photos found in P&P LOT 12446 (Description: back to text

45 Alan Fern interview, tape 3, p. 21. Toni Frissell papers, Box 7, publicity file. back to text

46 Clifton Fadiman to Toni Frissell, April 8, 1943, Toni Frissell papers, Box 9. Photo with negative number LC-F9-02-4304-056-11. back to text

47 Toni Frissell, interview by Alan Fern, ca. 1970, p. 23-24. back to text

48 Toni Frissell, interview by Alan Fern, ca. 1970, p. 30. back to text

49 Bourke-White went by boat to cover the Allied secret invasion of North Africa. When her boat was torpedoed, she escaped by lifeboat with a single camera which she used to photograph the bombing mission, the first woman granted that privilege. "Margaret Bourke-White: World War II," Wikipedia, Last updated June 30, 2021, back to text

50 "We Made It! Arrival at Bradley Field,"Harper's Bazaar 79, Issue (July 1945): 43-45, 35; Toni Frissell to I. S. V. Patchevitch, October 26, 1944. Toni Frissell papers, Library of Congress Manuscript Division, Box 12. . back to text

51 Beverly W. Brannan, Scope and Content Note, Toni Frissell papers, Library of Congress Manuscript Division. Finding aid. back to text

52 "'Women Come to Front' Exhibition to Open," Library of Congress Information Bulletin (Sept. 18, 1995),; the online exhibit is available at: back to text

53 Carmel Snow to Toni Frissell, June 28, 1945, Toni Frissell papers, Box 4, Harper's file. back to text

54 Toni Frissell papers, Box 11, Vogue file back to text

55 Mitchell, Recollections, 107. back to text

56 Mason Klein, "Modern Look--Photography, Innovation, and the American Magazine," in Mason Klein, ed. Modern Look (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2020), 41. back to text

57 Charles Rado to Toni Frissell, September 8, 1958, Toni Frissell papers, Box 15, folder 3 back to text

58 Current Biography (New York: H. W. Wilson, 1947), 221. back to text

59 K. S. White, The New Yorker, Dec. 11, 1948, 123; Toni Frissell papers, Box 14. back to text

60 Toni Frissell, interview by Alan Fern, ca. 1970, p. 21 and 63. back to text

61 Robert A. Sobieski, The Art of Persuasion: A History of Advertising Photography (New York: Harry N. Abrams, 1988), 67-71. back to text

62 Toni Frissell Photographs, 1933-1967, xxxiii. back to text

63 Toni Frissell papers, Box 15. back to text

64 Toni Frissell, interview by Alan Fern, ca. 1970, p. 10. back to text

65 Toni Frissell, interview by Alan Fern, ca. 1970, p. 3.; Toni Frissell Photographs, 1933-1967, xxxiv. back to text

66 Toni Frissell, Photographs, 1933-1967. (New York: Doubleday in association with the Library of Congress, 1994), xxxiv. back to text

67 Toni Frissell, interview by Alan Fern, ca. 1970, p. 4. back to text

68 Toni Frissell papers, Box 12, folder 4; "Bridge: Celebrating a Half Century," The New York Times, Nov. 2, 1975, 173. back to text

69 Toni Frissell papers, Box 15, folder 5. back to text

70 Toni Frissell, interview by Alan Fern, ca. 1970, p. 9. back to text

71 Huston Horn, "Rousing Day for U. S. Rowing," Sports Illustrated, June 19, 1961, 36-41. back to text

72 Toni Frissell papers, Box 7, folder 2, and Box 15, folder 1. back to text

73 Mitchell, Recollections, 104. back to text

74 Toni Frissell papers, Box 14; "Women's World," The Sunday StarJan. 20, 1971. back to text

75 "The Family of Man," Wikipedia, Last updated: May 15, 2021, back to text

76 Toni Frissell papers, Box 5, "Exhibits: Hallmark Exhibition, 1966-1969."; Mitchell, Recollections, 104 and 202 back to text

77 Mitchell, Recollections, 202. back to text

78 Toni Frissell papers, Box 12, 1956. Larry White et al. back to text

79 Toni Frissell papers, Box 12, 1956. back to text

80 Toni Frissell to George P. Hunt, Toni Frissell papers, Box 12, folder 4. back to text

81 The Taylor Estate: History, accessed: July 14, 2021, back to text

82 Toni Frissell, "Grandes Dames," Life, January 26, 1968, 44-53. back to text

83 Julia Rush Biddle (Mrs. T. Charlton Henry) Philadelphia social leader and lover of fashion and exercise; Alida Chanler (Mrs. Christopher Temple Emmet) poet and social leader; Edith Rosenwald (Mrs. Edgar B. Stern) philanthropist and promoter of educational reform; Alice Roosevelt (Mrs. Nicholas Longworth) writer and socialite; Mary Elizabeth Parkman (Mrs. Malcolm Peabody) Civil Rights activist; Georgiana Farr (Mrs. Harper Sibley) social and civil rights leader; Eleanor Robson [Mrs. August] Belmont who helped fund the Metropolitan Opera House; Helen Dinsmore Huntington (Mrs. Lytle Hull) arts patron and political hostess; Civil Rights activist Mary Parkman Peabody who went to St. Augustine, Florida, at the request of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. to lead a sit-in by blacks and whites at a racially segregated dining room; and Henrietta Kleburg Larkin (Mrs. Thomas Armstrong) descendant of founder of the King Ranch and chair of the board, 1955-1968. "Mary Peabody, 89, Rights Activist Dies" New York Times, Feb. 7, 1981, back to text

84 Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis comment during visit to Library of Congress, 1993? back to text

85 Toni Frissell: Four Decades of Photography, Exhibition, Dec 9, 1994-Feb 12, 1995, International Center of Photography, back to text

86 Stuart Symington to Mac Bacon, Toni Frissell papers, Box 15, folder 1. back to text

Prepared by: Beverly W. Brannan, Curator of Photography, Prints & Photographs Division, 2021.
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