Dahl was born in San Francisco, California to Norwegian immigrant parents. In 1914 she began her studies at the California School of Fine Arts (now the San Francisco Art Institute) where she stayed for six years. She studied design, decoration and architecture at Columbia University, New York in 1923. In 1928 she married the sculptor Meyer Wolfe, who constructed the backgrounds of many of her photos.
Dahl-Wolfe was known for taking photographs outdoors, with natural light in distant locations from South America to Africa in what became known as "environmental" fashion photography. She preferred portraiture to fashion photography. Notable portraits include: Mae West, Cecil Beaton, Eudora Welty, W. H. Auden, Christopher Isherwood, Orson Welles, Carson McCullers, Edward Hopper, Colette and Josephine Baker. She is known for her role in the discovery of a teenage Lauren Bacall whom she photographed for the March 1943 cover of Harper's Bazaar. She was a great influence on photographers Irving Penn and Richard Avedon. One of her assistants was fashion and celebrity photographer, Milton H. Greene.
Dahl has said of photography: "I believe that the camera is a medium of light, that one actually paints with light. In using the spotlights with reflecting lights, I could control the quality of the forms revealed to build a composition. Photography, to my mind, is not a fine art. It is splendid for recording a period of time, but it has definite limitations, and the photographer certainly hasn't the freedom of the painter. One can work with taste and emotion and create an exciting arrangement of significant form, a meaningful photograph, but a painter has the advantage of putting something in the picture that isn't there or taking something out that is there. I think this makes painting a more creative medium."
From 1933 to 1960, Dahl-Wolfe operated a New York City photographic studio that was home to the freelance advertising and fashion work she made for stores including Bonwit Teller and Saks Fifth Avenue. From 1936 to 1958 Dahl-Wolfe was a staff fashion photographer at Harpers Bazaar. From 1958 until her retirement in 1960, Dahl-Wolfe worked as a freelance photographer for Vogue, Sports Illustrated, and other periodicals.
Louise Dalhl-Wolfe lived many of her later years in Nashville, Tennessee. She died in New Jersey of pneumonia in 1989. The full archive of Dahl-Wolfe's work is located at the Center for Creative Photography (CCP) at the University of Arizona in Tucson, which also manages the copyright of her work.
In 1999, her work was the subject of a documentary film entitled Louise Dahl-Wolfe: Painting with Light. The film featured the only surviving modern footage of Dahl-Wolfe, including extensive interviews. It was written and directed by Tom Neff, edited by Barry Rubinow and produced by Neff and Madeline Bell.
Here are some examples of her work:
Model wearing exquisite gown.
Charles Boyer and his wife.
Carole Lombard and her dog.
Cecil Beaton photographing Marilyn Monroe.
Edward G. Robinson.
Gertrude Lawrence and friend.
She did many images of Lauren Bacall, even going so far as to help her get a film contract and to eventually meet Humphrey Bogart who became not only her film costar but her husband as well.
John and Jackie Kennedy
She also did a setting with Marlene Dietrich when she was in "Destry Rides Again."
Dahl-Wolfe photographing subjects and Diana Vreeland helping her with the model: