Petit Journal #63: Lisette Model

Lisette Model (1901–83) is a key figure in the history of photography, both for her highly personal style and for her work as a teacher. This exhibition brings together her most representative work. Alongside the familiar pictures from New York, the images of Sammy’s Bar, Coney Island or the streets of the Lower East Side, it features some more unusual images such as photographs from the “Pedestrians” series or pictures of the San Francisco Opera, the bars in Reno and Belmont Park Racetrack, New York. Lisette Model thought of the camera as a detection device, something that makes it possible to see what habit often hides. Concentrating on the frantic, compelling tempo of urban life, she was fascinated by people in the street and the clientele of nightclubs. As a photographer she followed her instincts, then cropped her negatives in the laboratory to eliminate any superfluous details and thus obtain her direct, powerful and richly human images. Berenice Abbott spoke of Model’s “fearless eye.” Without a doubt, her work was also unconventional, a quality that gained her the admiration of colleagues such as Ansel Adams and Edward Steichen, as well as the editors of the illustrated magazines that published many of her pictures.

Early life
Elise Amélie Félicie (known as Lisette) Stern was born into a wealthy Viennese family in 1901. In 1903 her father changed the family name to Seybert in response to the anti-Semitism then spreading through Austria. He died in 1924 and two years later Lisette’s mother returned to her native France, where she settled in Nice. Lisette moved to Paris. A deeply musical young woman – Arnold Schönberg had been among her teachers in Vienna – she began taking singing lessons with the soprano Marya Freund. However, for reasons that remain unclear – in a number of interviews she mentioned problems with her voice – she eventually gave up singing and concentrated on photography as a way of earning a living. She learnt her craft in part from her friend Rogi-André, the first wife of André Kertész, whom she later credited with providing the only “photography lesson” she ever acknowledged: “Never photograph anything you are not passionately interested in.” Another mentor, whom she befriended in 1937, was Florence Henri. Model took her first photographs between 1933 and 1938, in Paris and on the Côte d’Azur. Despite her lack of technical training, these pictures are already distinctive. From the outset, her vision is highly personal, at once very direct yet respectful of her subjects, while her lens is drawn to opposing poles of society: the haves and have-nots. Made in Nice in 1934, her famous “Promenade des Anglais” series is an uncompromising portrait of the wealthy, leisured bourgeoisie on the Côte d’Azur. It was also in 1934 that she met Evsa Model, a painter of Russian origin, whom she would marry three years later.

In 1938, Evsa and Lisette sailed to New York. Fascinated by the city, and eager to escape from the anti-Semitism and social conflicts of Europe, they made it their home. The powerful impact of the city is evident in many of Model’s series, including “Reflections” (1939–45), in which her camera focuses on shop windows and the people and skyscrapers reflected in them, “Running Legs” (1940–41), evoking the haste of men and women in the street, and “Pedestrians” (around 1945), in which she picks out individual men and women from the crowd. Model was undoubtedly at her most prolific in the years from 1942 to 1949. This was when she took her famous photographs of the bustling bars and nightclubs of the Lower East Side and Bowery. She also made several trips out to the West Coast, where she produced portraits of intellectuals, artists and fellow photographers (Henry Miller, Dorothea Lange, Edward Weston, Imogen Cunningham, etc.) and worked on one of her most incisive series, showing spectators at the San Francisco Opera. Also in the early 1940s, Model met the editor of PM’s Weekly, Ralph Steiner, who decided to publish pictures from her “Promenade des Anglais” series in his magazine, and then hired her as a contributing photographer. Steiner introduced her to Alexey Brodovitch, art editor of Harper’s Bazaar, who, as her first commission, in 1941, published Coney Island Bather, a portrait of a fleshy, jovial swimmer at the seaside. This would become one of Model’s most famous photographs, and was the first of many in a productive and stimulating relationship with the magazine. Model also published in US Camera, the journal edited by Ansel Adams, who became a friend. Again, it was probably Steiner who introduced her to the Photo League, where she met Berenice Abbott, and had her first American solo exhibition, from May to June 1941.

It was through the intermediary of Ansel Adams that, in August 1949, Lisette Model was asked to teach the course in documentary photography at the California School of Fine Arts in San Francisco. This first experience of teaching encouraged her to do more and in 1951 she joined the New School for Social Research at Columbia University, where she would work for the rest of her life, among colleagues such as Alexey Brodovitch, Josef Breitenbach and Berenice Abbott. Initially, she continued working as a photographer at the same time. Among the subjects she photographed in the 1950s were the New York Jazz Festival (1954–56) and the horse races at Belmont Park (1956). Eventually, however, she devoted herself fully to teaching. Model used to tell her students to “photograph from your guts.” She would get them to share her passion for photography by taking them to work in the streets of New York. Noteworthy graduates of her classes include Diane Arbus, Rosalind Solomon, Bruce Weber and Larry Fink. Some of her former students spoke of the vision she conveyed, which was all about focusing on the object of passionate interest rather than worrying about how the image would be perceived; about getting close to the subject and taking an interest in the world around us, breaking with the conventions and routine that keep us from seeing what is around us; about living in the present and reacting spontaneously to the freshness of the moment. Lisette Model gave her last talk on photography at the Comfort Gallery, Haverford College, only a few weeks before her death at the age of 82.


10 November: birth of Lisette Model in Vienna, Austria.

Takes music lessons, notably with Arnold Schönberg.

Death of her father.

Moves to Paris.

Gives up music. Gets her first camera and meets Rogi-André.

Starts work on her “Promenade des Anglais” series in Nice. Meets artist Evsa Model, a constructivist painter of Russian origin.

Images from “Promenade des Anglais” are published in Regards.

Marries Evsa Model.

Moves to New York.

Begins her “Reflections” series.

Ralph Steiner publishes selections from “Promenade des Anglais” in PM’s Weekly.

First solo show at the Photo League. Start of her working relationship with Alexey Brodovitch, who publishes her photographs in Harper’s Bazaar.

The most productive years of Model’s career. She produces famous images of New York nightspots (Sammy’s Bar, Nick’s, Gallagher’s) and travels to San Francisco, where she meets Ansel Adams.

Becomes a teacher at the New School for Social Research, Columbia University, a position she will hold for the rest of her life.

End of her collaboration with Harper’s Bazaar.

Diane Arbus is among her students.

Made an honorary member of the American Association of Magazine Photographers.

Meets Gerhard Sander, grandson of photographer August Sander, who becomes her dealer and takes responsibility for printing her photographs.

She is guest of honour at the Rencontres Internationales de la Photographie d’Arles, along with Izis and William Klein.

Aperture published a monograph about Lisette Model with layout design by Marvin Israel and text by Berenice Abbott.

“Lisette Model: A Retrospective” is put on at the Museum of Art in New Orleans, and tours to the Folkwang Museum, Essen (Germany) the following year.

Lisette Model is awarded the Gold Medal for Photography by the City of Paris.

4 March: gives her last lecture at the Comfort Gallery, Haverford College.
30 March: she passes away in New York, aged 82.

A major retrospective is put on at the National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa, curated by Ann Thomas.