HER LENS captured the haughty arrogance of the disillusioned rich, the loneliness of an aged society about to be destroyed forever by war, and the struggle of ordinary citizens born on the French Riviera amidst the conspicuous consumption of the wealthy.
Lisette Model was born as Elise Amelie Felicie Stern in Vienna on 10 November, 1901. A talented child who learned three languages fluently, her original interest was music and aged 19, she began studying with the composer Arnold Schönberg. 'If ever in my life I had one teacher and one great influence, it was Schönberg,' she is quoted as saying. Upon her father's death in 1924, she left Vienna for Paris, to pursue music studies with the Polish soprano, Marya Freund. But Lisette gave up music in 1933, when she discovered painting and met her future husband, the French-Jewish artist Evsa Model. She became a student in the atelier of André Lhote, who coincidentally had other future photographers of note enrolled in his class: Henri Cartier-Bresson and George Hoyningen-Huene. Lisette also studied photography and darkroom techniques, aided by her sister Olga, a professional career photographer, and the Parisian portrait photographer, Rogi Andre.
The Côte d'Azur and Paris, the main locations for Lisette Model's studies, were left behind when she married Evsa Model in 1937 and, the following year, moved to the USA, and to Manhattan. The characters and sites of New York came under the same intuitive scrutiny that the French had enjoyed. In 1940, when she applied for a job as a darkroom assistant on the weekly magazine PM, an enlightened picture editor saw the Promenade des Anglais series and immediately published them. In doing so, Ralph Steiner opened the door to artistic recognition, extensive exhibition opportunities and, in due course, a freelance association with Harper's Bazaar that was to last 15 years.
Model had always been keen on communication and teaching, so in 1951, enthusiastically accepted an invitation to teach at the New School for Social Research. Her great friend, Berenice Abbott, was also teaching photography there and Model continued as a tutor until her death in 1983. Perhaps Model’s best recognised pupil was Diane Arbus, who studied under her in 1957, and was much influenced by the older woman. Although Model's art had been supported by major names in the photographic firmament (Ansel Adams, Steichen and Weston) she did not always find it easy to secure exhibitions of her work. The excellent archive of Model's images and papers housed at CyberMuse1 (part of the National Gallery of Canada) records a number of rejections her agents received when trying to promote her pictures.
The late Berenice Abbott wrote the introductory essay to Aperture's large format tribute in their Monograph series. This is a faithful reprint of that first 1979 book (the first ever monograph published on Model's work) and retains the original design by Marvin Israel. Model herself had previously declined to have any works reproduced in book form and refused to discuss her personal life as a photographer - despite being a celebrated teacher of the subject. Towards the end of her life, she softened on this and gave audio interviews to selected researchers.
Aperture have updated the chronology and bibliography for this current edition but Abbott's text, based on an intimate personal knowledge, stands the test of time. 'She [Model] has that necessary rapport with the human species of whatever hue or faction,' Abbott notes, 'she is very much at home with all kinds of people'. The result of this natural communication is self-evident in each and every image Lisette Model presents in this book. Aperture is faithful to the artist in every way.