During the first half of the 20th century, the artistic life of America underwent a variety of profound changes. Lisette Model (1906-1983), with her stark realism and search for truth through photography, was at the forefront of these changes.
Lisette Model (nee Seyberg), was born into a wealthy family in Vienna, Austria on November 10, 1906. Her Jewish father and French Catholic mother raised her, her older brother, and her younger sister in the gentility of upper-class Austrian society. At the insistence of her mother, Model was raised in the Catholic faith. Fluent in three languages, she traveled extensively and received her formal education through private tutors.
As a child, Model was sexually molested by her father, a medical doctor and military man. While it was a situation Model did not dwell on, close acquaintances would verify her recollections of this experience. He father died of cancer in 1924. By this time much of the family fortune had disappeared.
Near the time of her father's death, Model studied music with composer, Arnold Schoenberg. She spent much of her time with the composer or traveling in his circle of acquaintances. Model regarded Schoenberg as one of her greatest friends.
Moved to Paris
In 1926, Model moved to Paris, where she planned to transfer her musical studies from piano to voice. She referred to these studies as a concentration on audio senses. By the early 1930s, Model decided to give up music, but felt a need to continue artistic studies in some vein. While living in Paris, she met and married the Russian artist, Evsa Model. It was at this time that she began the photographic odyssey that would define the rest of her life.
By 1934, Model's mother and sister Olga, were living in Nice, France. Olga, an experienced photographer, taught her older sister the technical aspects of photography, including darkroom work. During her visit to France in 1934, Model took a series of portraits on the Promenade des Anglais that eventually became some of her most widely exhibited pieces and were referred to as the "Riviera" series. Although Model did not acknowledge having her work produced in Europe, this series of portraits was first published in the Communist magazine Regards in 1935.
Interested in art and married to a painter, Model's natural path was to explore her artistic side beyond music, and she entered into a career that would consume her for the remainder of her life. During her years as a teacher of her craft, Model shared her philosophy with her students. She believed that you should never take a picture of anything that you are not passionately interested in.
Moving to New York City in 1938 with her husband, Model was stunned by the city. There was a freshness to New York that overwhelmed her. During her first year and a half in America, she did not take any pictures. Instead she took in her surroundings, absorbing the many settings she encountered along the way.
Success in America
Model attempted to support herself through her photography. She experienced her first success when Cue magazine published a series of her photographs in late 1940. The pictures were an artistic look at Fifth Avenue shops through plate-glass reflections. Her "Riviera" photos were printed some time later in PM magazine, and it was this exposure that introduced her style to the world. Although depending upon photography as her sole means of support was a difficult undertaking, Model was successful. Her success with Cue opened other doors, including that of Alexy Brodovitch, art director of Harper's Bazaar. Her work appeared with regularity in that periodical. Model became a premier photographer of New York City's dark underside, frequenting the Lower East Side and its small bistros. She was often compared with talented photographers like Berenice Abbott. In 1942, her photographs of an open-air patriotic rally, accompanied by blank verse written by Carl Sandburg, were published in Look magazine. As her reputation grew, her photos appeared in such magazines as Ladies' Home Journal, Vogue, Saturday Evening Post, and Cosmopolitan among others.
Developed Unique Style
Model had a passionate relationship with her camera and her subjects. Edward Steichen, one-time director of photography at the Museum of Modern Art, considered her to be one of the foremost photographers of our time. Known for her stark, biting portraits of people on the street, Model was capable of displaying a softer side through her work, as seen in her series' "Running Legs" and "Reflections."
Model had the ability to approach her subjects with a candor that many photographers never achieve. A physically large woman, she wanted to define the dignity of the stereotypical overweight immigrant woman. She found that the best way to achieve this was to compare women at different social levels-the social elite to the working class.
Model's attraction to the "common man," could be seen in her early pictures on the Promenade des Anglais and later in her pictures capturing the inhabitants of Manhattan's Lower East Side. Through these people she sought out life's extremes, exposing humanity in its baser forms yet touching on its heightened sensibilities. She was brilliant in her use of shadows, angles, grains, and other means available to expose the complexities of her subjects. Model was also willing to try new techniques. She experimented with cropped negatives, an approach many photographers would not think of taking, preferring to leave their negatives intact. By cropping her negatives, Model was able to manipulate the image in order to tell a story from her perspective, even if the original picture showed something different.
Model's photographs appeared on display in a number of shows, both individual and with others. She was a favorite at the Museum of Modern Art, where she had 13 one-woman shows between 1940 and 1962. Other sites where her work was displayed included New York City's Photo League, the Art Institute of Chicago, the California Palace of the Legion of Honor, New York's Limelight Gallery, the National Gallery of Canada in Ottawa, the Smithsonian Institution, Galerie Zabriskie in Paris, the San Francisco Museum of Art, Yale University's School of Art, Boston's Vision Gallery, Amsterdam's Galerie Fiolet, London's Photographers Gallery, and Austria's Tiroler Landesmuseum Ferdinandium.
A Master Teacher
In 1950, Model became a master teacher of photography at the New School for Social Research in New York City and remained there until 1983. She developed close friendships with many of those she mentored and taught. Other well-known photographers that learned from her were David Bruce Cratlsey, who captured New York's gay and lesbian side; Leon Levenstein, a New York street photographer whose photographs marked the changing scene of the city; Joan Roth, best known for her sensitivity toward women and who credits Model with giving her the encouragement to see people she might not have noticed before; and Diane Arbus, who moved from the realm of fashion photography to chronicling the humanity that lives on the edge: the junkies, midgets, and giants of the world.
Model's relationship with Arbus was probably the deepest of all those she had with her students. By 1957, the year Arbus appeared at the New School, Model had already developed a reputation as both an inspiring teacher and a tough task-master. Although both women looked for the dark realities of the world around them, Model's work had been described as establishing generalizations as a means of creating a visually active image. Arbus, on the other hand, produced photographs grounded in intense, unsparing reality. While Arbus did not seek close friendships with other women photographers, she and Model shared an interest in exploring the extremes of humanity through the photograph.
The Final Chapter
During the later years of her life, Model was a popular guest lecturer throughout Europe and the United States. She no longer actively sought work from publishers, preferring to remain in her teaching position. Model put aside many of her works, no longer cropping the negatives and manipulating the images that many considered to be excellent work, even in their untouched state. Reported to have recovered from a bout with uterine cancer in the mid-1960s, Model remained with the New School until her death in New York City on March 29, 1983.
Further Reading on Lisette Model
Baltimore Jewish Times, August 4, 1995.
Independent, October 18, 1997.
Jerusalem Post, June 30, 1995, p. 7.
Jewish Week, May 23, 1997.
Newsday, July 4, 1998, p. A2.
"Lisette Model," http://www.elsa.photo.net/lisette.html (March 1, 1999).
"Lisette Model," http://www.photo-seminars.com (February 16, 1999).