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Remembering Virginia Thoren Share This on LinkedIn   Share This on Google   Tweet This   Forward This

3 November 2017

You were a camera and eyewitness to a golden age -- the rebirth of Paris after the war," New York Times fashion photographer Bill Cunningham once wrote to Virginia Thoren. Thoren passed away on Oct. 27 in Manhattan at the age of 97.

Born to Swedish immigrants in New Jersey, her father a chauffeur and her mother a seamstress, she was recognized at an early age for her accomplished drawings and watercolors.

After a year at St. Lawrence University she transferred to Pratt Institute (which currently houses the Virginia Thoren Collection) to study the arts. Her classes, however, never included photography. Instead, she studied calligraphy, lettering, layout, poster art and location drawing, earning a certificate in advertising design in 1942. Upon graduation, she took a job at Vogue, working with layout, lettering, airbrushing and photostatting.

There she became photographer Toni Frisell's assistant. Frisell, a prominent woman photographer, was noted for developing the "American look." She was also one of the first fashion photographers to go on location.

She developed a unique style that used natural light on location, like Frisell, but adding her own sense of design in the set and props.

Although Thoren considered photography too technical a medium, she admired Frisell's realistic stagings and use of natural light, hallmarks of the artist she had been since childhood.

As Patricia Cutright points out in Virginia Thoren: Chasing Beauty -- New York and Paris, her early love of drawing and painting plus her formal training in advertising design formed "a foundation that prepared her for a long and eminently successful career in fashion photography."

And the end of World War II gave her that opportunity. As a representative of Albert Woodley Co., one of the first fashion agencies to re-enter Paris after the war, she was instrumental in reestablishing the fashion business in that city. After six years with Woodley, she decided to move to Paris and freelance for the company with her Rollei and 4x5 Speed Graphic.

When the photographer for the Fall fashion shows failed to make his assignment, she stepped in, photographed the shows and sent her work unattributed to New York where it was published in American and French magazines.

How had she overcome her lack of technical knowledge in an era before autoexposure? She had simply observed in working with other photographers that she could rely on a technical assistant to set the f-stop and aperture. She could focus on the composition.

She developed a unique style that used natural light on location, like Frisell, but adding her own sense of design in the set and props. But she also recognized the importance of putting the model at ease. She said, "I would take whatever they wanted to give," rather than direct the shoot.

But, of course, she had already set the scene.

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