Lisette Model was an Austrian-born American photographer. She began her creative life as a student of music. Through avant-garde composer Arnold Schönberg
, with whom she studied piano, she became exposed to the Expressionist painters of early twentieth-century Vienna. She never formally studied photography but took it up in the 1930s while living in Paris. An early piece of advice received from a colleague "Never photograph anything you are not passionately interested in"
, became her motto.
Model's images can be categorized as "street photography,"
a style which developed after the invention of the hand-held camera, which made quick, candid shots possible. Through her own complicated personal history, she found intensely empathetic connections with her disparate subjects.
Model eventually settled in New York, where she met with quick success as a commercial photographer for Harper's Bazaar
magazine and as an artist with her work exhibited at the Museum of Modern Art
. For thirty years she taught photography in New York, where she instructed and befriended Diane Arbus
Source: J.Paul Getty Museum
Lisette Model was born Elise Amelie Felicie Stern in the family home in the 8th district of Vienna, Austria-Hungary. Her father, Victor, was an Italian/Austrian doctor of Jewish descent attached to the Austro-Hungarian Imperial and Royal Army and, later, to the International Red Cross; her mother Felicie was French and Catholic, and Model was baptized into her mother's faith. She had a brother, Salvatór, who was older by one year. Due to growing anti-Semitism in Austria and her father's struggle with his Jewish-Austrian identity, he had their last name changed to Seybert in February 1903, and six years later, her younger sister Olga was born. According to interview testimony from her older brother, she was sexually molested by her father, though the full extent of his abuse remains unclear.
She had a bourgeois upbringing, was primarily educated by a series of private tutors, achieving fluency in Italian, German, and French. Her private education even when the family suffered financial strain after WWI. Despite her privileged upbringing, she frequently recalled her childhood as difficult. At age 19, she began studying music with composer (and father of her childhood friend Gertrude Arnold Schönberg, and was familiar to members of his circle. "If ever in my life I had one teacher and one great influence, it was Schönberg"
, she said. There is little known about her art education, but her connection with Schönberg exposed her to the contemporary art scene and leading avant-garde artists such as Gustav Klimt
. Early exposure to Expressionism was what perhaps influenced her interest in observing people, and subsequently, photography.
Model left Vienna with Olga and Felicie for Paris after her father died of cancer in 1924 to study voice with Polish soprano Marya Freund
in 1926. Felicie and Olga moved on to Nice, but Lisette stayed in Paris, the new cultural hub after WWI, to continue studying music. It was during this period that she met her future husband, the Jewish, Russian-born painter Evsa Model
(1901-1976), whom she went on to marry in September 1937. In 1933, she gave up music and recommitted herself to studying visual art, at first taking up painting as a student of Andre Lhote
(whose other students included Henri Cartier-Bresson
and George Hoyningen-Huene
). From 1926 to 1933 she underwent psychoanalysis for childhood trauma, but little is known about what exact issues to she went for other than that it is believed she was molested by her father in her childhood. These years were referred to as her lonely period, as she frequented cafés alone and struggled to immerse herself into a radically different social group than the bourgeoisie class she had grown up surrounded by.
Model bought her first enlarger and camera when she went to Italy. She had little training or interest in photography initially; it was Olga who taught her the basics of photographic technique. Model was most interested in the darkroom process, and wanted to become a darkroom technician. She used her sister as a subject to start her photography. Model claimed that "I just picked up a camera without any kind of ambition to be good or bad"
, but her friends from Vienna and Paris would go on to say that she had high standards for herself and a strong desire to excel at whatever she did. She also stated that the only lesson she ever got in photography, other than from her sister, was from Rogi André
, who told her "Never photograph anything you are not passionately interested in"
, a quote she would rework later and become well-known for in her teaching career: "Shoot from the gut"
. André showed Model how to use the Rolleiflex
, expanding her practice.
Her decision to become a professional photographer came from a conversation in late 1933 or early 1934 with a fellow Viennese émigré and former student of Schönberg, Hanns Eisler (who had previously fled Germany once Hitler came into power). He warned her about the need to survive during a time of high political tension, pushing her to earn a living by photographing. Visiting her mother in Nice in 1934, Model took her camera out on the Promenade des Anglais and made a series of portraits - published in 1935 in the leftist magazine Regards - which are still among her most widely reproduced and exhibited images. These close-cropped, often clandestine portraits of the local privileged class already bore what would become her signature style: close-up, unsentimental and unretouched expositions of vanity, insecurity and loneliness. Model's compositions and closeness to her subjects were achieved by enlarging and cropping her negatives in the darkroom. Additionally, her use of a 2+1⁄4 inch square negative and larger print size were stylistic choices considered unique at a time when a proliferation of street photographers were embracing what was called the minicam. Later examination of her negatives by archivists reveals that the uncropped images include much of the subjects' physical surroundings. Model's edits in the darkroom eliminate those distractions, tightening the focus on the person and excluding extraneous background information. After the publication of the Promenade des Anglais images, or the Riviera
series, Model resumed her Paris street photography practice, this time focusing on the poor.
Neither Evsa nor Lisette was in possession of French citizenship, and they were well aware of building political tension in Europe, so they emigrated to Manhattan in 1938. Their first home was the Art Deco Master Apartments, but it soon became too expensive and they moved several times in their first few years in New York. The couple, especially Evsa, were known to be very social, frequenting cafés, and especially places with performers that Lisette liked to photograph.
Model claimed that she did not take any photographs in the first 18 months she lived in New York, but an envelope dated 1939 contained many negatives of Battery Park, Wall Street, Delancey Street, and the Lower East Side depicting ordinary American people. She quickly became a prominent photographer, and by 1941, she had published her work in Cue, PM's Weekly, and U.S. Camera. She was captivated by the energy of New York City, which she expressed through her separate series Reflections
and Running Legs
. Interested in American consumerism and a culture very different from her own, Model began photographing Reflections
, a series that explored manufactured images, and products or consumers in window reflections. She was recognized for her radical deviation from traditional viewpoint, and preoccupation with notions of glamour and anti-glamour. This series along with her work Running Legs
attracted the attention of editors Carmel Snow
and Alexey Brodovitch
from Harper's Bazaar
, a magazine she went on to work for from 1941 through 1955. One of her first assignments was to photograph Coney Island, in which she took some of her most recognized works such as Coney Island Bather"
. Her vision was of great interest to the editors at Harper's Bazaar
, but by the 1950s, her involvement decreased dramatically, and she only published two assignments: A Note on Blindness
and Pagan Rome
In 1944, she and Evsa became naturalized U.S citizens. Letters dated that same year revealed Model's family was financially struggling in Europe, and that her mother had died of cancer on October 21.
Model eventually became a prominent member of the New York Photo League and studied with Sid Grossman
. Despite the League's effort to maintain that it was a cultural, photographic organization, political pressure led to the League's demise in 1951. During its existence, Model was an active League member and served as a judge in membership print competitions. In 1941, the League hosted her first solo exhibition. From 1941 to 1953, she was a freelance photographer and contributed to many publications including Harper's Bazaar
, and Ladies' Home Journal
Model's involvement with the New York Photo League became the cause of much strife for her during the McCarthy Era of the 1950s, when the organization came under scrutiny by the House Un-American Activities Committee for suspected connections to the Communist Party. Though the League was not officially a political organization, many of its members used photography as a means for social awareness and change, but Model did not identify herself as a political or documentary photographer. The League was eventually classified as a communist organization by the FBI, who interviewed Model personally in 1954 and attempted to recruit her as an informant. She refused to cooperate with the Bureau, leading to her name being placed on the National Security Watchlist. Because many clients were reluctant to hire somebody who was under FBI suspicion, Model encountered increased difficulty finding opportunities to work, which played a role in her focus shift towards teaching.
In 1949, she taught photography at the San Francisco Institute of Fine Arts. She left for California to teach in part for economic reasons and due to her friendship with Ansel Adams
, who extended an informal invitation to a teaching position. She stayed from August until at least November of that year as a "Special instructor in documentary photography"
in the Department of Photography. She did not produce much of her own work at that time, possibly because of her failure to receive the Guggenheim Fellowship the previous year.
In spring 1951, Model was invited to teach at the New School for Social Research in New York City, where her longtime friend Berenice Abbott
was also teaching photography. The New School had a liberal, humanistic approach to education and a high number of European refugees on staff. Known for her straightforward way of addressing her students, and unorthodox teaching style, Model realized she had a talent for teaching. Her teaching notebooks make frequent references to using children's art as example to show that art was an exploration of the world, and not a replication of what was already in place. She strongly focused on challenging her students to strive for the subjective experience and the utmost creativity, sometimes inspiring students, but alienating others. She did not tolerate lukewarm effort, and was ruthlessly critical of students' work that lacked passion.
She also offered private workshops with Evsa from their apartment. Model's best known pupil was Diane Arbus
, who studied under her in 1957, and Arbus owed much of her early technique to Model. Arbus's husband Allan was quoted attributing her development as an artist to Model: "That was Lisette. Three sessions and Diane was a photographer." Larry Fink
, Helen Gee
, John Gossage
, Charles Pratt
, Eva Rubinstein
and Rosalind Solomon
were also students of Model's. For twenty years she taught the program with little variation and routinely followed the same principles. She continued to teach in New York after the passing of her husband Evsa in 1976, both at the New School and at the International Center of Photography. In 1981 she was awarded an honorary Doctorate of Fine Arts by the New School. In 1964, Model once again applied for the Guggenheim Fellowship, and in 1965 she was awarded the fellowship of $5,000 for a period of one year. In 1966 she went to Los Angeles and Las Vegas, with the intention to photograph anti-glamour of American culture. She also went to photograph in Italy, but due to ill health she returned to New York earlier than anticipated, and was diagnosed and successfully treated for uterine cancer.
In the 1970s, Model developed rheumatism in her hands, but continued to diligently teach and photograph. The first book of Model's photographs was published in 1979 by Aperture and included a preface by Berenice Abbott
. Marvin Israel
designed the book. Fifty-two photographs made from 1937 to 1970 were reproduced at a large enough scale to correspond with her preferred dimension of 16 × 20 inches.
In early 1970 she applied to the Ingram Merrill Foundation and was awarded $2,500, and in March 1973 she received a Creative Artists Public Service Program award for $2,500. In the later half of her career, Model's work underwent a steep drop in print production. She hadn't stopped shooting photographs; she had simply stopped printing them. Much like some of the hazier details of her biography, the reason for this change has not been conclusively identified. Speculation points toward declining health and self-efficacy, increased energy directed towards teaching, and precarious financial situation as some of the primary causes. Nevertheless, Model continued to shoot and teach until her death. She was especially inspired to photograph when away from home, such as her photographs of students in Berkeley in 1973, Lucerne in 1977, Venice in 1979, and so on. She even returned to Nice, France, for the first time in nearly thirty years. However, she did not find the same inspiration there that she once had when photographing her first influential series Promenade des Anglais.
Model's image is included in the iconic 1972 poster Some Living American Women Artists
by Mary Beth Edelson
In January 1976, Evsa suffered a heart attack, which required that he be constantly taken care of and monitored. His health continued to decline until his death later that same year. His death deeply affected Lisette, who continued to live in their basement apartment they had shared for many years.
Even in her twilight hours, her work was exhibited in Germany, Japan, and the Netherlands, to name a few, and in 1982 she received the Medal of the City of Paris. On March 4, she gave her last lecture at Haverford college, and she died at New York Hospital on March 30, 1983 from heart and respiratory disease.