“Here are faces that I have found memorable. If they are not all as happy as kings, it is because in this imperfect world and these hazardous times, the camera’s eye, like the eye of a child, often sees true.” -Toni Frissell
Antoinette Frissell came from a long history of accomplished ancestors including the founder and president of a New York bank, a governor of Missouri, a U.S. Representative from Connecticut and a Revolutionary War hero. She became known all over the world as a patrician photographer.
Vogue caption writer turns photographer
Antoinette Frissell was trained as an actor but didn’t feel she was cut out to continue in the theatre. She became interested in taking pictures largely because her brother, the filmmaker Varick Frissell, taught her the basics of photography. She went to work at Vogue as a caption writer but was fired when it became clear she was poor at spelling. Vogue’s fashion editor, Carmel Snow, encouraged Frissell to work in photography.
She started taking pictures to help cope with her mother’s illness, the breakup of her engagement Count Serge Orloff-Davidoff and the death of her brother Varick, who was killed filming “The Viking” — the first Hollywood feature to be made in Canada.
Her first published photographs appeared in Town and Country. She landed a contract with Vogue in 1931 as a fashion photographer working under the name Toni Frissell. She also took photos for Haper’s Bazaar. Her specialty was photographing active women and evening gowns outdoors. She was one of the first photographers to take fashion shoots out of the studio into natural environments establishing this as a trend in the industry.
She explained her outdoor work this way, “I don’t know how to photograph in a studio. I never did know about technical points and still don’t.”
World War II
Toni Frissell initially volunteered as a photographer for the American Red Cross. Then she worked for the Eighth Army Air Force before becoming the official photographer of the Women’s Air Corps. She made memorable images of soldiers on the front line, nurses, Tuskeegee Airmen (opening photo, bottom row, far left and in the center group top, far right) and children orphaned by the war (opening photo, bottom row, far right and in the center group, top left).
She covered the front in the European war twice. Her photos of bombed-out parts of London are poignant.
During the 1950s she made portraits and editorial photos of the famous and the powerful in both the United State and in Europe. She photographed Winston Churchill, Freda Kahlo for Vogue, John & Jackie Kennedy and family, (opening photo, top row, third photo, top and bottom respectively) to name just a few.
Fashion, the first bikini and Sports Illustrated
Toni continued shooting fashion for both Vogue and Harper’s Bazaar. In 1945 she photographed the first bikini bathing suit at Montego Bay, Jamaica (opening photo, top row, far right). After tiring of fashion she pursued her passion for photographing active women and sports. In 1953 she became the first female photographer on the staff of Sports Illustrated and continued there for several decades.
Her famous photograph “My Shadow” became even more so when Edward Steichen included it in the Museum of Modern Art exhibition “The Family of Man” — seen by 9 million people worldwide.
Work spanning her career was featured in a 1966 feature in LIFE entitled “The Loving Embrace.”
Antoinette Frissell Bacon was married to her husband Frances “Mac” Bacon for fifty years. She died of Alzheimer’s disease in 1988. She was 81.
Be inspired by other photographers of note in On Photography on Photofocus.