Summary of Lisette Model
Lisette Model redefined documentary photography in the early forties through her direct, honest portrayal of human character. Her large format photographs of common people registered the physical and emotional impact of modern life. Model was readily embraced by the New York photographic community, and her work appeared regularly in Harper's Bazaar and other publications. Her most influential works are the photographic series on the Promenade des Anglais in Nice and on the streets of New York's Lower East Side. Model later shaped the direction of postwar photography as a teacher of the medium at the New School for Social Research.
- Lisette Model's photography exemplifies the European photographic tradition and its influence on American modern photography. Avant-garde techniques such as low-angles, sense of movement, window reflections, and natural photomontages defined her approach. Together with Model's keen urban observation, these innovations allowed her to saturate her photos with the pulse and cacophony of city life.
- Model's first series of photographs, known as the Promenade des Anglais, taken on the Riviera in France, demonstrates her first tentative experiments with the medium. In these photos, she approached her subject, the French upper middle-class, with a raw instinct, which was further enhanced by her over-sized, grainy, and coarse looking prints. Edward Weston readily recognized the raw power of her work.
- Model's main subject was the social and psychological landscape of New York City during the 1940s. As the art historian Lisa Hostetler noted, "Model's penchant for photographing common people in lackluster urban places echoes Surrealism's insistence on the presence of psychic meaning in the often overlooked, humble details of everyday life."
- Model's photography represented a new photographic expression that eliminated any pretension of objectivity. Model self-consciously revealed and confronted her subject, using photography's realism to expose a moment of truth between the photographer and the photographed. Model's subjective approach (its method and perspective) encouraged creative photographers, and her many students, to maintain their independent voice, while working for the mass media.
Important Art by Lisette Model
Gambler Type, French Riviera
Model captures the Gambler Type in this photograph from the series Promenade des Anglais in Nice. This seemingly idle, and rich man enjoys dozing off under the sun. He acknowledges the photographer's presence, yet he does not move more than his eye lids. Model observed his manner of sitting, his dress, and his face, all of which reveal a man who adhered to conventional social etiquette. Yet, his self-image tells nothing about his cunning skill as a gambler or that he is a gambler. Instead, it reveals his custom of whiling away the afternoon alone.
Model scrutinizes and ridicules her subject in Gambler Type through her eye-level depiction, showing him as a character, a type, and a symbol of the European bourgeoisie. Interestingly, Model herself came from the same class. The photo-historian Vicky Goldberg commented, "...as Europe sank into the Depression [in the early 1930s] and photographers began to think about documenting the plight of the poor, Lisette Model picked up a camera for the first time and photographed the upper-middle classes." Her images recall the Austrian painter Christian Schad's sharp-focused portraits of old aristocrats, bohemians, and new rich, which record a mixture of elegance and decadence that characterized this "class of lost souls" in twenties Vienna.
The Promenade des Anglais series was Model's first photographic project. It was published in the French illustrated magazine Regards and accompanied a text that harshly criticized France's upper middle class. Although Gambler Type is not explicitly political, its social criticism fit within a leftist, European worldview that lay the cause for the political and economic turmoil of the thirties at the feet of industrial capitalism, which financed the lifestyle of a wealthy, idle middle-class.
Gelatin silver print - The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York
This image of a crowded sidewalk unmasks New York City's crowded streets and frenetic pace through the walking legs and clustered shoes of its urban dwellers in the major commercial and tourist center. It conveys the feeling of being overwhelmed by this crowded environment. Model laid herself on the ground to capture from curb-level the dynamic and varied urban movement. As her close friend, the photographer Berenice Abbott commented, "[Model] uses the camera with her entire body." Here she fuses the European tradition of urban observation and photo-graphic experimentation, in particular the unconventional viewpoints and antagonism toward class and status.
These faceless shoes and legs represent Model's beloved city - a New York that is modern and energetic. Times Square is one of her early metropolis pictures, and it captures the photographer's enchantment with her new home.
Gelatin silver print - The Museum of Modern Art, New York
Reflection, Lower East Side
This photograph, part of her Reflections series, captures a male bystander's silhouette reflected in a shop window. The bystander stands right in front of the window, while he looks into the shop's interior and its display of folded linens. The reflections in the plate-glass window blur the boundaries between interior and exterior spaces: the various piles of linen merge with the facade and towers of a building across the narrow street, shop signs appear on the right of the male figure, and a man's hat emerges at the bottom of the image. The white spheres of hanging light bulbs also appear in the image. They playfully imitate in miniature the moon's large round orb, suspended high in the sky at the top edge of the image.
Model was fascinated by the Lower East Side and found inspiration in its small bistros and shops. She used shop windows to frame the chaos of the city as well as anticipate the brooding, shadow-filled aesthetic of film noir, which emerged around this time in America. This particular photograph perfectly captures the sense of intrigue at the heart of film noir - the man as a mystery, whose interior self is metaphorically reflected through the indecipherable signs and flickering light bulbs in the window.
Model believed the images conjured within these shop windows were natural photomontages. As noted by her close friend Berenice Abbott: "reflections are mirrored in a manner acutely visual and selective without being 'impressionistic.' These images whether double or triple are indeed amusing, jog our ribs and suggest many related images." Model's composition is reminiscent of Eugène Atget's Parisian shop windows from the 1920s with their spatial and reflective, yet surrealist qualities.
Gelatin silver print - The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York
Coney Island, also known as Coney Island Bather, is Model's most iconic photograph. The bather poses as a diva, lying on her side on the sand, propping her head up with her bent arm and supporting herself with an outstretched arm, all the while smiling at the camera. Model used the snapshot's spontaneity to describe this common woman's vitality and expression, presenting her as an everyday goddess. This image appropriately illustrated an article that celebrated Coney Island as a democratic space for leisure, which appeared in Harper's Bazaar. This photograph aimed to empower its subject, unlike the series Promenade des Anglais, which aimed more to ridicule.
Based on Model's own account, the bather, who was extremely excited to have her picture taken, would confront onlookers by saying: "What's wrong with you? Have you never seen a fat person before?" The photographer's interest in strong female figures is seen throughout her entire body of work - from her overweight bather, to her divorcées, and her Jazz singer; they are all depicted as resilient and confident women.
Gelatin silver print - The Museum of Modern Art, New York
Albert-Alberta, Hubert's Forty-second Street Flea Circus, New York
Alberta-Alberta is the name of the performer, who portrays a hermaphrodite. This performer visualizes masculine and feminine qualities on the right and left sides of his body through his manner of dress. On his feminine, left side, he wears half a bra and an ankle-length stocking and high heel, whereas on his masculine, right side, he wears no bra, exposes his hairy leg, and wears a sock and a man's lace-up shoe. The photograph highlights the hermaphrodite's gender ambiguity.
Model was fascinated by the performer, and she once noted that "he was a Parisian, he had been a woman until the age of 35, with four children, and when the fourth child was born, he slowly but surely turned into a man." This photograph underscores Model's interest in those urban figures, odd individuals and "freaks," who shaped our image of New York City.
Hubert's 42nd Street Flea Circus was a basement phantasmagoria that showed everything from sword swallowers to contortionists. It was a popular place amongst New York avant-garde photographers, even Arbus frequented Hubert's before it closed in 1966. Hubert's Flea Circus tapped into the period's fascination with the exotic, a fascination shared by German Expressionists, who like Model examined the oddity of modern subjectivity.
Gelatin silver print - National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa
Singer at Café Metropole
This energetic image presents the female Jazz singer as a statuesque figure by photographing her from below and at an angle. Her headdress morphs with her hair, making it look electrified. Besides its acute viewpoint, "the camera's capacity for arresting movement" is what is important in this image, according to the photo-historian Ann Thomas. This instantaneous snapshot, with its imperfect and happenstance appearance, captures the Jazz singer's characteristic enthusiasm. For Model, the snapshot came closest to the truth, allowing her to scrutinize her subject's character, even in its grotesque form.
For Model, Jazz was America - a sentiment shared by the German and Austrian Expressionists whom she met in Vienna - and her passion for this music can be felt in her theatrical and expressionist portrait of a Singer at Café Metropole - one of the best clubs in the city during the 1940s. Model was very much interested in New York's vibrant night scene and she was a devoted Jazz fan.
Gelatin silver print
Divorcée, Reno is a classic and elegant portrait of a woman, watching a bronco-riding event. It is taken slightly above eye-level and at bust length to dignify the subject. The photo-historian Gordon Baldwin remarked: "this portrait contains some fascinating dualities: the woman's provocative gaze is both glamorous and reticent, cosmopolitan and provincial, feminine and masculine. It is hard to say whether the subject is a bold, recent divorcee enjoying the spectacle of bronco riding or a nervous wife waiting for a decree to end a broken relationship."
However, this divorcée was actually waiting to receive her state residency in Nevada to be able to divorce under Nevada's law. In the 1940s, Nevada was the only state granting divorce. Model traveled to this state on assignment for the Ladies' Home Journal in 1949. She produced a photo-essay on divorce in Reno, which included images of the Winne family. The Winnes owned a ranch that received women waiting for their state residency to divorce. Model photographed more than just the Winne family; she depicted the guests, future divorcées, and gamblers staying at the family's ranch.
Divorcée, Reno demonstrates Model's sensitivity to the impact social restraints have on individuals as she portrays the gutsiness of this individual woman. Along with Model's photo-essay on divorce, this portrait has been overlooked until only recently. It has nevertheless become one of her famous, iconic images.
Gelatin silver print - National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa
Museo Capidoglio, Rome
Museo Capidoglio, Rome personifies a male bust, as the strong shadows and contrasts add drama. Although this photograph might seem like a tourist snapshot at first, it expresses the same emotion and visceral qualities found in Model's portraits. Model spent five-months Europe in 1953 in order to sell a family property. During this trip, she became extremely productive. Amongst the thousands of negatives she took, there were photographs of statues, buildings, and monuments. There has been much speculation as to why Model became increasingly interested in sculpture or inanimate figures, as of the 1950s. A plausible explanation could be her fear of Senator Joseph McCarthy's anti-communist witch hunt, which could have prompted her to switch subject matter. Or Model could have become fascinated with the expressive qualities found in Renaissance art and architecture.
The bust, Model photographed, was located in the Capitoline Museums in the Piazza del Campidoglio, on top of the Capitoline Hill in Rome, Italy. Works such as the Museo Capidoglio, Rome were considered of a lesser significance and remained unknown until 1990, when The National Gallery of Canada presented the most complete Model retrospective to date.
Gelatin silver print - The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles
Biography of Lisette Model
Lisette Model was born Elise Amelie Felicie Stern in Vienna. Her Jewish father Victor Hypolite Josef Calas Stern was a wealthy Italian-Austrian doctor, and her Catholic mother François Antoinette Félicité Picus was from Savoy, France. In response to the growing anti-semitism in Europe at the time, Elise's father changed the family name from Stern to Seybert. Elise and her siblings, Salvatòr and Olga, were baptized in the Christian faith. The Seybert family lived in a fairy-tale mansion in a noble area of the city, but Elise was a reclusive child in comparison to the youngest of her three siblings, Olga, who was the most beautiful and smartest.
Elise was an intensely private person, who was reluctant to speak about her personal life in interviews. This is maybe due to her unhappy childhood and her father's abusive treatment - which might have led her to freely edit her life story. Throughout her childhood and adolescence, Elise learned to speak and read French, Italian, and German, and showed little interest in the visual arts. She was passionate about classical music, practicing with private tutors almost daily.
With the outbreak of WWI, Austria experienced an economic stagnation that impacted the Model family's luxurious lifestyle. They had to adapt to a slightly more modest one, obligating the family to lay off maids and tutors.
Elise continued her studies of music with Arnold Schoenberg, an experimental musician and composer, known for introducing 12-tone, atonal music. Schoenberg, the father of her childhood friend Gertrude, exposed Elise not only to avant-garde music, but also introduced to her to his many Expressionist artist-friends and their work. He was so connected that he even had his portrait made by Egon Schiele.
A few years following her father's death in 1924, Elise moved to Paris in search of an exciting hub of artistic activity. Postwar Austria had lost its splendor, 60% of its territory, as well as economic and political viability. Although Elise studied voice with Polish soprano Mayra Freund until 1933, she abruptly abandoned her voice studies and switched focus to the visual arts. Elise shifted her interests to painting first, and then photography. Her early drawings, however, already show her interest in the human figure and in people's character.
She discovered and learned about photography from her sister Olga, who was a professional photographer, and Rogi André, Andre Kertész's wife. André further educated Elise in photography and mentored her to "never photograph anything that you are not passionately interested in." Elise then decided to become a full-time photographer and served as an apprentice with the Bauhaus-trained photographer Florence Henri in 1937.
Elise married the Jewish Russian Constructivist painter Evsei Konsantinovich Model, known as Evsa Model, in Paris in 1937. They probably met in Nice in 1934, when she was photographing her well known series of the bourgeoisie enjoying the summer at the Promenade des Anglais. With the increasing rise of fascism in Europe, the Models fled in 1938 to New York, where Evsa Model's sister lived. His sister acted as their Visa sponsor.
Lisette Model fell in love with New York City at first sight: "when we put our feet on Riverside Drive, we felt in love in a split second.. the beauty of the highways, the poetry of the skyscrapers." Her early New York photographs are a homage to the city's fast-pace and to its embrace of new immigrants. Yet, it was her series of the Promenade des Anglais in Nice, which garnered her great success and drew the attention of the New York photographic community, including Ralph Steiner, Edward Steichen, Ansel Adams, Beaumont Newhall, Berenice Abbott, and Paul Strand. Through these connections, she met the Art Director Alexey Brodovitch, who hired her to work for Harper's Bazaar, which was a crucial forum for the latest trends in American photography. This job became her main source of income for many years, in addition to her work for the illustrated magazines Cue, PM Weekly, Look, and Ladies Home Journal. This job also lent her work visibility, resulting in its inclusion in the 1940 inaugural exhibition of the Museum of Modern Art's Department of photography, "Sixty Photographs: A Survey of Camera Aesthetics." In May the following year, Lisette had her first solo exhibition as a member of the prestigious Photo League, a photographer's cooperative and educational society dedicated to social reform.
Because Evsa Model received an invitation to teach painting in California, the couple moved West in the late 1940s. While there, Lisette became friends with photographers linked to the f/64 group, such as Ansel Adams and Imogen Cunningham. Even though these West Coast photographers were famous for their pristine technique and over-the-top print quality, attributes Lisette's work lacked, they admired her visceral approach towards the medium. At the time, Lisette also taught photography at the San Francisco Institute of Fine Arts.
Around this time, Lisette received the news that her brother had presumably died in a concentration camp in Austria. Thankfully, her sister Olga emigrated to Venezuela and Lisette visited her in 1953.
The 1950s were not very generous to the Models. Besides their financial struggles, Lisette left many of her projects incomplete - one of which was a photo book about Jazz. To secure a livelihood, she accepted the invitation to teach at the New School for Social Research, a progressive institution that included among its faculty, such artists as John Cage and Berenice Abbott. Lisette took easily to teaching, which became her priority, even offering private lessons at her apartment. Her own photographic work did not suffer much because of her teaching load. Rather it could have been her name's inclusion on the FBI's National Security list or even the changing needs of magazines, which curtailed her offers for work at this time.
Lisette was suspected of being a communist, as a member of the Photo League, which Senator Joseph McCarthy's House Un-American Committee classified as a communist organization. As a result, the FBI investigated and interviewed Lisette in 1954; she neither admitted to being a card-carrying member of the communist party, nor did she name names.
Finally in 1965, Lisette received the Guggenheim fellowship that eluded her over the years. She became quite interested in photographing elderly people, possibly due to a sense of self-identification. She would never abandon taking photographs throughout her life; she just discontinued printing them. By the mid 1970s, she had lost most of her friends, and in 1976, her life-long partner, Evsa died. As a result of these losses, she became reclusive, yet she never stopped teaching, giving lectures days prior to her own death from natural causes.
The Legacy of Lisette Model
As a professor of photography, Model generously passed on her knowledge and passion for photography. Diane Arbus, one of her most famous students, was highly influenced by Model's risk taking and choice of subject matter. According to Arbus' ex-husband, Allan Arbus, "three sessions [with Model] and Diane was a photographer." Charles Pratt, Eva Rubinstein, Peter Hujar, and John Gossage also benefitted from Model's tutelage.
As a photographer, her unapologetic framing and cropping of the negative taught us to look closely at people. Her photographic techniques paved the way for contemporary photographers' unorthodox amending of the original material to create insightful pictures about how we see the world. Her interest in the ambiguity generated by images reflected on shop windows, later informed the work of street photographers, such as Lee Friedlander. Moreover, "Model brought a frank subjectivity and expression of strong passions to a medium conventionally noted for its mechanical and seemingly neutral capacity to record information," according to the photo-historian Ann Thomas. Model's "fearless eye" - the keen sense of observation and value of everyday eccentricity and ethnic diversity - pushed against the grain of mainstream American culture, which increasingly moved toward a homogenized consumer-driven society.