Born in Alameda, California, Dahl-Wolfe studied at the San Francisco Institute of Art. In 1921, while working as a sign painter, she discovered the photographs of Anne Brigman, a Pictorialist based in California and associated with the Stieglitz circle in New York. Although greatly impressed by Brigman’s work, Dahl-Wolfe did not take up photography herself until the early 1930s. Travel with the photographer Consuelo Kanaga in Europe in 1927-28 piqued her interested in photography once again.
In 1932, when she was living with her husband near the Great Smoky Mountains, she made her first published photograph, Tennessee Mountain Woman. After it was published in Vanity Fair in 1933, she moved to New York City and opened a photography studio, which she maintained until 1960. After a few years producing advertising and fashion photographs for Woman’s Home Companion, Saks Fifth Avenue, and Bonwit Teller, she was hired by Carmel Snow as a staff fashion photographer for Harper’s Bazaar in 1936. Dahl-Wolfe remained with the magazine until 1958, after which time she accepted freelance assignments from Vogue and Sports Illustrated until her retirement in 1960.
Dahl-Wolfe was especially well-known during the infancy of color fashion photography for her exacting standards in reproducing her images. Her insistence on precision in the color transparencies made from her negatives resulted in stunning prints whose subtle hues and unusual gradations in color set the standard for elegance in the 1940s and 1950s. In addition, she pioneered the active yet sophisticated image of the “New Woman” through her incorporation of art historical themes and concepts into her photographs.