“I just picked up a camera without any kind of ambition to be good or bad. And especially without any ambition to make a living … My whole freedom working in photography comes because I say to myself, ‘Let’s see what is going on in this world. Let’s find out. How do these people look?’” -Lisette Model
Lisette Model was born in Vienna as Elise Amelie Felicie Stern. Her early training was in music under Arnold Schoenberg whose experiments in music introduced the 12 tone, atonal sounds. Her interest turned from music to the visual arts. She studied drawing and painting.
She discovered photography when she moved to Paris seeking out its exciting hub of artistic creativity. It was there that she joined in a group with André Kertész’s compatriots. By 1937 she had chosen photography as her career, married the Constructivist painter Evsa Model and moved to New York City.
European photographic influences
Lisette Model’s work is a solid expression of the photo traditions embraced by Europeans of the time. Her work influenced American photography. Her sense of movement, use of low angles and window reflections show her style of working in the street. American photographer, Edward Weston easily understood the raw strength of her images. Her most famous and inspirational photography is found in her series on the Promenade des Anglais (opening photo, top row first three photos from left,) Nice, France and in New York’s Lower Eastside streets.
First work in the streets
It was during her first series of street photographs in 1934, titled Promenade des Anglais made on the Rivera in France that she probably met Evsa. Her intuition guided her as she photographed upper middle-class French subjects then made oversized prints that were grainy and textured.
Moving to New York
The rise of fascism in Europe in the 1930s prompted the couple to move to New York. There, Lisette fell in love with the city. “When we put our feet on Riverside Drive,” she said. “We felt in love in a split second. The beauty of the highways, the poetry of the skyscrapers.”
The first photographs of the city are a homage to its frenetic pace and welcoming of immigrants (opening photo bottom row, last photo is of photographer Djon Mili with his Speed Graphic camera and flash). The success of her work in France caught the attention of the city’s photography community. Well-known photographers Berenice Abbot, Ansel Adams, Paul Strand and Edward Steichen all took notice of her and her work.
Her connections with the NYC photographers led to an introduction to legendary Harper’s Bazaar art director, Alexey Brodovitch who hired her to work for the magazine. At the time Harper’s was an important showcase for new trends in American photography. The job at the magazine was her main income along with assignments for US Camera, PM’s Weekly Look, Cue and Ladies’ Home Journal. The magazines gave her work national visibility.
The recognition of her photography found her work included in the Museum of Modern Art first exhibit of photos: “Sixty Photographs: A Survey of Camera Aesthetics.” The next year she had her first solo exhibition as a member of the prestigious Photo League.
Evsa Model got an invitation to come to California and teach painting so the couple moved there in the late 1940s. While in California, she became involved with photographers of the f/64 group that include Ansel Adams and Imogen Cunningham. While their style of super sharp and tonally perfect photography was not the way Lisette Model photographed, they admired her gut level work.
By this time she was teaching photography at the San Francisco Institute of Fine Arts.
Returning to New York
By the 1950s the Models were struggling financially. Lisette had to abandon a book of photographs about Jazz (opening photo, top row, last photo of Art Taylor at the 1956 Newport Jazz Festival). She accepted an invitation from the New School of Social Research to teach photography back in New York City. Lisette was a gifted teacher who would sometimes provide lessons in her apartment. Fortunately, her own photography did not suffer due to teaching.
When her assignment photography did slow down, it was most likely, due to the inclusion of her name on the FBI National Security list. As a member of the Photo League, she was suspected of being a communist after Sen. Joseph McCarthy and his House Un-American Committee declared the League to be a communist group. She was interviewed by the House committee and never admitted to being a card-carrying communist; she also did not name any names.
Finally, after years of work, Lisette Model received a Guggenheim fellowship in 1965. It allowed her to pursue her interest in photographing the elderly, possibly because she identified with them. She photographed continuously throughout her life. She did stop printing her work.
By the middle of the 70s, most of her friends had been lost. Her beloved husband Evsa, died in 1976. She became reclusive but she never stopped teaching. She lectured until the last few days before her own death.
Lisette Model, photographer and professor of photography never lost her passion for the art and her teaching of it. Allan Arbus, ex-husband of Diane Arbus said, “three sessions [with model] and Diane was a photographer.”
Over the course of her career, she became a singular influential street photographer recording everyday people as candid images. She was known for the earnest humanity of her street work. Her humanistic perspective helped her re-imagine documentary photography during the 1940s.
“Don’t shoot until you feel it in your gut.” -Lisette Model
On Photography features short life stories of inspirational photographers. Read the stories of the photographers in this article by clicking on their links.