imago images/Everett Collection

Iconic Photographers: Toni Frissell in capturing War, Fashion, and Portraitures

Discover the life and legacy of Toni Frissell, an iconic photographer renowned for capturing war, fashion, and portraiture.

Photography has seen many transformative figures, but few have been as versatile and groundbreaking as Toni Frissell. She was known for her dynamic and emotionally compelling images in several genres, including fashion, portraiture, and war photography.

Her innovative approach, unique style and daring spirit revolutionized the way fashion was captured and perceived, leaving an indelible mark on the industry—something that has made her one of the most iconic photographers in history.

Toni Frissell
IMAGO / Pond5 Images | Toni Frissell wearing ski garb, kneeling with a camera in the snow, 1940s, Corviglia, Italy. Photographer: Alfred Eisenstaedt/The LIFE Picture Collection.

Who Was Toni Frissell and What Did She Do in Photography

Toni Frissell, born Antoinette Frissell Bacon on March 10, 1907, in New York City, was a groundbreaking American photographer known for her innovative and diverse contributions to the field.

She started her career in the 1930s and continued to influence photography until her death in 1988. Frissell’s importance in photography lies in her versatility and her ability to capture both the elegance of high fashion and the stark realities of war. Toni Frissell broke new ground with her dynamic compositions and daring approach, bringing a fresh perspective to each genre she touched. Her work documented significant historical moments and also set new standards in fashion and portrait photography.

Photography Style: Grace, Contrast, and Character: Toni Frissell’s photography style is characterized by its boldness and emotional depth. She was known for her ability to create striking images that conveyed a sense of movement and vitality. Her work often featured strong contrasts and a keen attention to detail, whether she was capturing the grace of a model, the grit of a soldier, or the personality of a famous figure.

World War II Photography by Toni Frissell

Toni Frissell war photography during World War II.
IMAGO / GRANGER Historical Picture Archive | P-51 Mustangs flying in formation over Ramitelli, March 1945, Italy. Toni Frissell’s war photography during World War II.

Toni Frissell was celebrated for her distinctive approach to war photography, particularly during World War II. Her powerful images from this period include poignant portraits of nurses, soldiers, and children affected by the war. Frissell’s photographs offered a humanizing look at the war’s impact, bringing the realities of conflict into the public eye.

Frissell volunteered her services as a photographer to the American Red Cross, the Women’s Army Corps, and the Eighth Army Air Force. Through these roles, she gained access to various theatres of war, capturing the lives of soldiers, nurses, and civilians affected by the conflict. Her photographs often portrayed the resilience and daily routines of these individuals, providing a personal and intimate perspective of the war​.
In addition, Frissell’s war photographs include powerful images of military women and African American fighter pilots of the 332d Fighter Group, known as the Tuskegee Airmen. These images documented the significant contributions of these groups to the war effort and promoted the inclusion of African Americans and women in the military​.

One of her most iconic wartime photographs was taken during the London Blitz, capturing the devastation of the city. These images were published in Life magazine, marking a significant milestone in her career​.

Toni Frissell war photography during World War II.
IMAGO / GRANGER Historical Picture Archive | Members of the Tuskegee Airmen in a meeting, March 1945, Ramitelli, Italy. Photograph by Toni Frissell.
Toni Frissell war photography during World War II.
IMAGO / glasshouseimages / Circa Images | Lieutenant Virginia N. Justy reviewing documents at 8th Air Force headquarters, January 1945, near London, England. Photograph by Toni Frissell.

“I became so frustrated with fashions that I wanted to prove to myself that I could do a real reporting job.” – Toni Frissell.

imago images/ZUMA Press
IMAGO / glasshouseimages / Circa Images | Boy sitting by ruins of a building during the World War II bombing, January 1945, London, England. Photograph by Toni Frissell.

Portraits of the Famous by Toni Frissell

Frissell’s portrait work is notable for its intimate and revealing nature. She photographed a wide array of famous individuals, from political figures to artists and entertainers. Some of her notable subjects included Eleanor Roosevelt, Winston Churchill, and John F. Kennedy. Frissell’s approach was often informal, which allowed her to capture the natural demeanour and personality of her subjects, distinguishing her work from the more staged portraits typical of the era.

Portraits by Toni Frissell featuring significant figures
IMAGO / GRANGER Historical Picture Archive | John F. Kennedy, 35th President of the United States, September 1957. Photograph by Toni Frissell.
Portraits by Toni Frissell featuring significant figures
IMAGO / Cinema Publishers Collection | Close-up portrait of the Kennedy family with newlyweds John F. Kennedy and Jacqueline Kennedy, September 1953, Hollywood, CA, USA. Photograph by Toni Frissell.

Frissell’s portraits of the Kennedy family, including John F. Kennedy and Jacqueline Kennedy, are particularly notable. Her close access to the family allowed her to capture them in personal moments, contributing to the public’s perception of the Kennedys during the early 1960s. These images documented the private lives of one of America’s most iconic political families.

She also took portraits of European aristocracy and celebrities, which were often featured in major publications like Vogue and Harper’s Bazaar, where she worked for many years. Her work in this area is celebrated for its elegance and the unique insight it provides into the lives of her subjects​.

Portraits by Toni Frissell featuring significant figures
IMAGO / piemags | Elizabeth Taylor resting her head on her husband Eddie Fisher, date not stated. Photograph by Toni Frissell.
Portraits by Toni Frissell featuring significant figures
IMAGO / ZUMA Wire / JT Vintage | Frida Kahlo was photographed by Toni Frissell, seated next to an agave plant, during a photo shoot for Vogue in 1937, Mexico.

Revolutionary Fashion Photography by Toni Frissell

“I don’t know how to photograph in a studio. I never did know about technical points and still don’t”. – Toni Frissell.

Fashion photography by Toni Frissell.
IMAGO / GRANGER Historical Picture Archive | Back view of fashion models in swimsuits, two wearing swim fins, 1950. Fashion photography by Toni Frissell.

Toni Frissell’s fashion photography was revolutionary. She introduced a dynamic and naturalistic style that broke away from the traditional, static studio setups of the time. Her innovative approach brought a fresh, modern perspective to fashion imagery, making her one of the most influential photographers in the field during the 1930s and 1940s.

Frissell began her career in fashion photography, working for Vogue under the mentorship of Cecil Beaton. She soon developed her signature style, with outdoor settings and a focus on movement and spontaneity. This was a significant departure from the more posed and artificial studio environments that were prevalent in fashion photography at the time. By using natural light and real-world locations, she infused her images with a sense of realism and vitality that resonated with contemporary audiences.

“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.” – Toni Frissell.

Toni Frissell photographing models in natural settings
IMAGO / GRANGER Historical Picture Archive | A fashion model underwater in a dolphin tank, 1939, Marineland, Florida. Photographed by Toni Frissell.

One of Frissell’s most famous fashion photographs features a model underwater in a dolphin tank at Marineland, Florida. This image exemplifies her willingness to experiment with unusual and challenging environments to achieve striking visual effects. Her work often featured models in action, whether they were running on a beach, skiing down a slope, or simply caught in a candid moment, which helped to convey the energy and elegance of the fashion being showcased.

However, Frissell’s contributions to fashion photography extended beyond her technical innovations. She was one of the first to highlight the beauty of sportswear and active lifestyles, reflecting the changing role of women in society. Her photographs were regularly published in major fashion magazines such as Harper’s Bazaar and Vogue, where she worked under contract from 1941 to 1950. During this period, she produced a prolific amount of work that captured the evolving fashion trends of the time.

You can see photos of Toni Frissell’s work in the IMAGO archive here.

Fashion photography by Toni Frissell
IMAGO / GRANGER Historical Picture Archive | Fashion model Lisa Fonssagrives at Paddington Station, 1951, London, England. Fashion photography by Toni Frissell.
imago/UIG
IMAGO / UIG | Five women holding hands and skipping together, August 1935, United States. Photographed by Toni Frissell.
Portraits by Toni Frissell featuring significant figures
IMAGO / Cinema Publishers Collection | British Prime Minister Winston Churchill with his son Randolph and grandson Winston in coronation robes, at the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II, June 2, 1953. Photographed by Frissell.
Toni Frissell war photography during World War II.
IMAGO / ZUMA Wire / JT Vintage | Woman kneeling next to a child’s bed in an underground tunnel during the World War II bombing, January 1945, London, England. Toni Frissell’s war photography during World War II.
Portraits by Toni Frissell featuring significant figures
IMAGO / glasshouseimages | Actress Elizabeth Taylor photographed by Toni Frissell with her daughter Elizabeth Liza Frances Todd, September 1957.
 Fashion photography by Toni Frissell.
IMAGO / ZUMA Wire / JT Vintage | Fashion model wearing a tennis outfit, sitting on a wall with mountains in the background, February 1947. Fashion photography by Toni Frissell.
Toni Frissell photographing models in natural settings
IMAGO / glasshouseimages / Circa Images | Silhouette of surfers riding a wave, 1957, Oahu, Hawaii, USA. Photographed by Frissell.
 Fashion photography by Toni Frissell.
IMAGO / ZUMA Wire / JT Vintage | American skier Suzy Chaffee in a ski outfit and cape, full-length portrait, November 1969, Vail, Colorado, USA. Photographed by Frissell.
Fashion photography by Toni Frissell.
IMAGO / GRANGER Historical Picture Archive | Fashion model with llamas, 1952, Cuzco, Peru. Photographed by Frissell.

The credit of the cover photo: IMAGO / Everett Collection | Weeki Wachee spring, Florida, 1947. Photographed by Toni Frissell, Courtesy Everett Collection.


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