Sea-ready swimmers sit pretty in this B+W Toni Frissell photo from the ‘50s
Summer officially starts next Friday, and those of us who take our beach days seriously will surely seize the first few hot Saturdays to stake out seaside territory. We’ll lay claim to a stretch of sand with our troop of towels and tote bags and alternate between baking in the sun (sensibly, with extra SPF) and launching ourselves laughing into the waves like overgrown toddlers. Swimming is the ultimate summer sport after all, and the promise of a beachy moment also brings with it that special sort of lazy, salt-licked sedation. A good long look at our new Toni Frissell edition is sure to spark the same sensation, making it the perfect print to collect to kick off the season.
Shot in 1950 for Harper’s Bazaar, Fashion Models in Swim Suits features three seated, swimsuit-clad fashion models facing a seamless backdrop. This vintage photograph might not be what first comes to mind when the Toni Frissell fans out there think of her work—the renowned American artist and boys’ club crasher is perhaps best known for blending fashion photography with a sort of reportage, bringing her models out into the real world. Fashion Models in Swim Suits may have been captured in-studio, but it gives us a vantage point to appreciate some of Frissell’s other game-changing approaches to her field.
This photograph is, for instance, an excellent example of Frissell’s penchant for unorthodox perspectives, and her ability to use perspective to craft an immersive narrative. In this case, by placing her camera at a low point-of-view, Frissell positions the viewer similarly. You’d be forgiven for imagining yourself sitting on the beach behind these three ladies. She uses light to imitate the midday sun, and transform the curve of the backdrop into a distant beach horizon. Fashion Models in Swim Suits is also fairly close-up and straight-on, not unusual for Frissell. A centered and symmetrical image, it draws you in. It’s relatively unadorned, so your focus doesn’t stray too far from the flipper-wearing sportswomen, charismatic as all get out even though they face away from you.
Part of what makes these models so compelling is their pert postures. Geared up and gazing expectantly at the theoretical shore, they seem ready to dive into the water. Maybe they’re just waiting for the perfect wave. With her hands on her hips in a power pose, the figure at center doubles down on the self-assurance, eagerness and energy that permeates Fashion Models in Swim Suits. Yes, they look beautiful, but they also appear athletic. 1950s fashion photography was hardly accustomed to representations of female athleticism—it’s Frissell who may well have played the largest part in turning that tide. She’d go on to become the first female staff photographer at Sports Illustrated, and Vogue’s point person for fashion in action.
In eschewing the expected studio setting, playing with light, crop and perspective, and subverting gender norms, Frissell was swimming against the current. The work she produced would be integral to the development of fashion imagery post World War II. It would also leave us lucky art lovers with almost cinematic moments like Fashion Models in Swim Suits. This edition not only showcases Frissell’s mean storytelling skills and her interest in portraying active, adventurous women, but it also builds the case for her own personal mix of romance and rule-breaking moxie. And if romance and rule-breaking don’t sound like summer, what does?