Louise Emma Augusta Dahl was born in November 1895 in San Francisco. She began her studies at the California School of Fine Art Institute in 1914 where she stayed for 6 years studying design with Rudolph Schaeffer. She became interested in photography when she met Anne Brigman in 1921. From 1920 to 1922 she worked as a sign designer for the Federal Electric Co.
She studied design and decoration, and architecture at Columbia University in New York in 1923 and was employed as an assistant to decorator Beth Armstrong in San Francisco. In 1928 she met the sculptor Meyer Wolfe in Tunisia and married him in San Francisco. She wanted to take the last name Wolfe, but later, in order to be differentiated from the commercial photographer by the same name, she adopted the hyphenated “Dahl-Wolfe.” In the summer of 1932 she spent her time in Gatlinburg photographing the people of the Smoky Mountains. One year later Vanity Fair published one her portraits. It was her first published work.
From 1933 to 1960, Dahl-Wolfe operated a New York photographic studio that at first was home to the freelance advertising and fashion work she made for stores including Bonwit Teller and Saks Fifth Avenue, but soon was in use for Harper’s Bazaar projects for which she worked as a staff fashion photographer. During that period her photographs featured on 86 covers.
She is known for her work outdoor in the natural light of South America and Africa in “environmental” fashion photography. She shot Mae West, Cecil Beaton, Eudora Welty, W. H. Auden, Christopher Isherwood, Orson Welles, Carson McCullers, Edward Hopper, Colette and Josephine Baker, Irving Penn and Richard Avedon. The fashion and celebrity photographer Milton H. Greene assisted her.
From 1958 until her retirement in 1960, Dahl-Wolfe worked as a freelance photographer for Vogue Magazine, Sports Illustrated, and other periodicals.
Major exhibitions of her work include ‘Women of Photography: A Historical Survey’ at San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (1975); ‘The History of Fashion Photography’ (1977) and Recollections: ‘Ten Women of Photography’ (1979) at International Museum of Photography, ‘George Eastman House, Rochester, New York; and Portraits at the Center for Creative Photography’, University of Arizona, Tucson (1986). Retrospectives include shows at Grey Art Gallery, New York University (1983); Cheekwood Fine Arts Center, Nashville, Tennessee (1984); and Louise Dahl-Wolfe: A Ninetieth Birthday Salute at the Museum of Contemporary Photography, Chicago (1985).
She retired in 1960 and died in 1989 of Pneumonia in New Jersey. All of her archive can be found at the Center for Creative Photography (CCP) at the University of Arizona in Tucson. She is remembered today as an influence on a generation of photographers including Horst P., Richard Avedon, and Irving Penn.