The only thing more impressive about late photographer Toni Frissell's rare and groundbreaking images seen in an exhibit in Head of the Harbor may be the woman behind the lens.

In 1931, Frissell pioneered the outdoor fashion shoot in Vogue magazine; in the 1940s, she snapped one of the first images of a woman in a bikini for Harper's Bazaar; and in 1953 she took iconic photos of Winston Churchill at Queen Elizabeth II's coronation and of John F. and Jacqueline Kennedy's wedding.

But to residents in the small village of Head of the Harbor and neighboring St. James -- where Frissell spent her adult years -- she was the tall, elegant woman whose earnest desire to catalog life's simple pleasures was equally matched by her ever-present camera documenting their personal moments.

"This is not about fashion or celebrities," said exhibit curator Leighton Coleman III, also the village historian and a family friend of Frissell, who died in 1988 of Alzheimer's disease.

"This is about the photographs that she took in the community, and yet she employed the same techniques that she would use in fashion photography or in a photograph of a celebrity with her friends and neighbors and their children."

Winston Churchill in a 1950 photo. Photo Credit: TONI FRISSELL

More than 80 of Frissell's photos -- spanning from the 1930s to the '80s -- are on display through Thursday in a free exhibit at Village Hall.

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The photos include a mother tenderly holding her young daughter; two boys in a hammock wearing oversized hats; and twin sisters clamming.

Frissell never formally studied photography, but took a brief apprenticeship with acclaimed photographer Cecil Beaton and was encouraged by renowned photographer Edward Steichen.

Coleman said Frissell focused on creating a "spontaneous snapshot quality, which was hard to do in the 1930s with the technology, because the shutters didn't work as fast."

Brent Brookfield, of Paris, said she hopes others will learn more about her grandmother's work.

Frissell photographed bikini-clad model Dovima at Montego Bay, Jamaica. Photo Credit: TONI FRISSELL

"She did things that people copied afterward," Brookfield, 55, said at the May 29 opening of the exhibit. "One of my biggest frustrations is my grandmother was a really great photographer and she didn't really get the notoriety that she should have."

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'A true innovator'

Antoinette Wood Frissell was born in 1907 and grew up among high society. In 1932, she married Francis McNeil Bacon III, a wealthy Manhattan broker. The couple started their family and moved to St. James in 1935.

In the early 1940s, Frissell volunteered to take photos for the Red Cross during World War II, including the Tuskegee Airmen. From the 1950s to the '70s, her work appeared in Life, Look and Sports Illustrated magazines.

In 1967 she told Newsday that the fashion genre had become too "unrealistic." People, she said, were her favorite subjects.

Frissell with her dog, Hugo, in Stony Brook Harbor. Photo Credit: TONI FRISSELL

"Catching people unawares, at the one precise moment that never returns, is to me the most rewarding of all," she said.

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Frissell donated more than 300,000 rolls of film to the Library of Congress. Some of the images can be found in her photobiography, "Toni Frissell Photographs 1933-1967."

Village Hall was abuzz recently with laughter and reunions as more than 75 current and former residents reflected on Frissell's work. Helen Coleman Evarts, 87, of Manhattan, smiled at her wedding photos, taken in 1948 by Frissell, whom Evarts remembered as an affable next-door neighbor.

"She paid us children to bring our dogs and horses around, so she could take pictures of the models in the countryside," Evarts said.

Former Apple chief executive John Sculley, 76, who loaned a prescient photo that Frissell took of him in an apple tree, described her as "a true innovator."

"She had a great sense of humor and she was always experimenting with different approaches," said Sculley, who lived across the street from Frissell. "She was doing realism before anyone else ever thought of it."

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Mayor Doug Dahlgard said he wants the exhibit to re-create the community atmosphere that once permeated the area, home to about 1,500 residents.

The exhibit, Dahlgard said, is "something to see and . . . it probably will not happen again."

 

PICTURES AT AN EXHIBITION

See rare images from private collections that were taken by renowned photographer Toni Frissell. Docents will be on hand to answer questions.
WHEN: 11 a.m.-2 p.m. Sunday; 11 a.m.-3 p.m. Monday to Thursday, June 11
WHERE: Village Hall, 500 N. Country Rd., St. James
ADMISSION: Free
INFO: 631-584-5550