Antoinette Frissell Bacon (March 10, 1907 — April 17, 1988), known as Toni Frissell, was an American photographer, known for her fashion photography, World War II photographs, and portraits of famous Americans, Europeans, children, and women from all walks of life.
Antoinette Frissell was born in 1907 to Lewis Fox Frissell and Antoinette Wood Montgomery. Her brothers were Phelps Montgomery Frissell and filmmaker Varick Frissell, who was killed in Newfoundland during the filming of The Viking in 1931. Frissell was the granddaughter of Algernon Sydney Frissell, founder and president of the Fifth Avenue Bank of New York, and the great-granddaughter of Mary Whitney Phelps and Governor of Missouri John S. Phelps. Ancestors include Elisha Phelps, US representative from Connecticut (1819–21, 1825–29) as well as Maj. Gen. Noah Phelps, Revolutionary War hero.
When Frissell was younger, she was passionate about theater, but after two roles in Max Reinhardt productions, she realized the theater was not for her. In her early twenties, she started taking pictures in part because of her brother, Varick Frissell, a filmmaker and photographer who taught her the basics of photography. She was married to Francis “Mac” Bacon on September 9th, 1932 after a few months of the couple’s romance. She had a passion for skiing, and once went on a three month long skiing trip with her husband and daughter after her daughter’s graduation. Toni and her husband purchased a large, white house on Long Island at Saint James called 'Sherrewogue' on the water of Stony Brook Harbor where the two of them and their family lived for nearly fifty years.
In the early seventies, she began to have trouble with her memory. To counteract this, she began to write a memoir, one that turned into almost a thousand-page manuscript. Her memoir recounts the times from her childhood to her later life, detailing her privileged upbringing, exploration of Europe, parties in her twenties, youth romances, and adoration for the richer way of life. This early fascination with the privileged life influenced the choice in subjects of her photographs, and the more privileged sports such as skiing and golf, that she went on to photograph for Sports Illustrated.
Frissell was born in 1907 in Manhattan, NY, but took photos under the name Toni Frissell, even after her marriage to Manhattan socialite McNeil Bacon. At the beginning of her career, she worked briefly for Vogue, making captions and writing a bit for the magazine. She was fired because of her poor spelling, but was encouraged by Vogue’s fashion editor Carmel Snow to take up photography. She took up photography to cope with the illness of her mother, the death of her brother Varick Frissell, and the end of her engagement to Count Serge Orloff-Davidoff. Her first published picture was in Town and Country. After this, she advocated for herself and got a contract with Vogue. She apprenticed with Cecil Beaton.
She worked with many other famous photographes of the day. Her first photography job, as a fashion photographer for Vogue in 1931, was due to Condé Montrose Nast. She later took photographs for Harper's Bazaar. Her fashion photos, even of evening gowns and such, were often notable for their outdoor settings, emphasizing active women. She was one of the first photographers to move outside of the studio for fashion photography, setting a trend in the field. She did not shoot indoors primarily because “I don't know how to photograph in a studio. I never did know about technical points and still don't”. Her style continued in this ‘plein air’ way throughout her career. For this kind of innovation and experimentation she was well known.
World War II
In 1941, Frissell volunteered her photographic services to the American Red Cross. Later she worked for the Eighth Army Air Force and became the official photographer of the Women's Army Corps. On their behalf, she took thousands of images of nurses, front-line soldiers, WACs, African-American airmen, and orphaned children.
She traveled to the European front twice. Her moving photographs of military women and African American fighter pilots in the elite 332d Fighter Group (the "Tuskegee Airmen") were used to encourage public support for women and African Americans in the military.
After the war
In the 1950s, she took informal portraits of the famous and powerful in the United States and Europe, including Winston Churchill, Eleanor Roosevelt, and John F. and Jacqueline Kennedy, and worked for Sports Illustrated and Life magazines. Throughout her photographic career, she worked at home and abroad for these large publications.
When she grew tired of fashion photography and fluctuating between contracts with Vogue and Harper’s Bazaar, she continued her interest in active women and sports and was hired as the first woman on the staff of Sports Illustrated in 1953, and continued to be one of very few female sport photographers for several decades.
In later work she concentrated on photographing women from all walks of life, often as a commentary on the human condition.
Frissell died of Alzheimer's disease on April 17, 1988, in a Long Island nursing home. Her husband, Francis M. Bacon 3rd, of Bacon, Stevenson & Company, predeceased her. She was survived by her daughter Sidney, and her son Varick.
The collection of her photos in the Library of Congress contains around 340,000 images, and because of its size is not completely available to the public. She and her husband donated her archive of film negatives in 1971.
Her photographs illustrated:
- A Child's Garden of Verses (1944)
- Bermuda:The Happy Island (1946)
- Mother Goose (1948)
- The King Ranch, 1939-1944 (1965)
- Tethered, by Amy MacKinnon (August 2008)
- Toni Frissell Photographs: 1933-1967 (1994)