Meet Toni Frissell - the woman who made sport fashionable

Vince Aletti credits the photographer with adding a winning streak to fashion magazines in new book, Issues
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Toni Frissell, c. 1935. Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons
Toni Frissell, c. 1935. Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

At a time when sportswear plays an enormous role in the international fashion business, it’s important to remember that once women weren’t widely portrayed as athletic. And, if there’s one photographer who helped make that, shift, it’s probably Toni Frissell.  

"Largely self-taught, Toni Frissell approached fashion like a photojournalist, taking her models out of the studio and into the world,” writes Vince Aletti in his new book, Issues: A History of Photography in Fashion Magazines.

“In a period when even women who weren’t drawn into the workforce found ways to engage with the issues and movements of the day, Frissell made women’s active, public lives her subject. Mostly, she followed her own interests. 

 

Vogue, September 15, 1939, Toni Frissell. Collection Vince Aletti
Vogue, September 15, 1939, Toni Frissell. Collection Vince Aletti

“Born into privilege if not great wealth (her father was a Park Avenue doctor), with a rich family history of exploration and adventure, Frissell became Vogue’s insider for its coverage of society and sports, and her fashion shoots tended to blend into her reportage.” 

 

Vogue, December 15, 1938, Toni Frissell. Collection Vince Aletti
Vogue, December 15, 1938, Toni Frissell. Collection Vince Aletti

In Frissell’s pictures, women might be skiing, sailing, biking, or even in the case of one 1938 cover, surfing. "A descriptive note about the surfing cover includes an image of the intrepid photographer perched high on a ladderlike platform secured to an outrigger canoe in order to get her shot,” explains Aletti. “Years later, she was the first female staff photographer at Sports Illustrated, and as Vogue’s sportswoman-in-residence, Frissell photographed style in action—on the slopes, at the golf course, in the pool.” 

 

Vogue, June 1, 1940, Toni Frissell. Collection Vince Aletti
Vogue, June 1, 1940, Toni Frissell. Collection Vince Aletti

As with many professional photographers from this period, Frissell also trained her lens on WWII. "For her part, Frissell was the official photographer for the American Red Cross and the Women’s Army Corps, shot for the United States Office of War Information, and toured Europe as photographer for the American Fifteenth Air Force squadron.” 

 

Vogue, May 15, 1941, Toni Frissell. Collection Vince Aletti
Vogue, May 15, 1941, Toni Frissell. Collection Vince Aletti

This time in Europe may have even influenced her artistry. "One of Frissell’s most memorable photographs appeared in the 1941 magazine, introducing a series of articles called ‘Beauty and the Elements’,” writes Aletti. “Taken in the dolphin tank at Marineland in St. Augustine, Florida, it’s an image out of a dream: a woman in a long white gown, suspended underwater, buoyant as a dancer on air. A figure in a deep-sea diver’s suit watches from the murky depths while she hovers like an apparition. It’s a surrealist vision - ecstatic, erotic - in an issue that was largely under that movement’s spell.”

 

Issues by Vince Aletti

Vince Aletti is a writer, curator, and critic whose work appears regularly in such publications as Artforum, photograph, and Aperture. Aletti was art editor and photography critic of the Village Voice from 1994 to 2005 and reviewed photography exhibitions for the New Yorker’s "Goings On About Town" section from 2005 to 2016.

He is the author of The Disco Files 1973-78: New York's Underground, Week by Week and coauthor of Avedon Fashion 1994-2000 and has contributed essays to numerous publications on photography and fashion. Buy a copy of Issues here.


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