A native of New York City, Toni Frissell trained as an actress and worked in advertising before devoting herself to photography in the early 1930s. Her introduction to photographic representation came through her brother Varick, a documentary filmmaker, whose death while filming off the coast of Labrador in 1929 inspired her to pursue the medium seriously. Mainly self-taught, she found work as a caption writer and then as a fashion photographer for Vogue. During World War II, she was the official photographer for the American Red Cross and for the Women's Army Corps of the U.S. Office of War Information. From 1941 through 1950, she worked for Harper's Bazaar, but her experiences as a war observer encouraged her toward photojournalism, and she produced little fashion work after 1950. Instead, she did location photography on a freelance basis for LIFE, Look, Vogue, and Sports Illustrated until her retirement in 1967. Since the resurgence of interest in fashion photography, Frissell's work has been included in solo exhibitions at the Philadelphia Museum of Art and ICP, group shows at the George Eastman House, and many other exhibitions.
Frissell's major contribution to fashion photography was her development of the realistic (as opposed to the staged) fashion photograph in the 1930s and 1940s. Like Martin Munkacsi, she mastered the appearance of unselfconscious spontaneity in fashion pictures by working outside and on location with her models. She had a tendency to use uncommon perspectives, which she achieved by placing her camera on a dramatic diagonal axis, and/or using a low point of view and a wide-angle lens against a neutral background, thus creating the illusion of elongated human form. With her preference for close-ups and straightforward, unembellished images of winsome, sportswear-clad models, Frissell's action-fashion photographs are landmarks in the development of postwar fashion imagery.
Lisa Hostetler Handy et al. Reflections in a Glass Eye: Works from the International Center of Photography Collection, New York: Bulfinch Press in association with the International Center of Photography, 1999, p. 216.