PRINT May 1980


Lisette Model: An Aperture Monograph

LISETTE MODEL IS SURELY photography’s Greta Garbo, a living legend surrounded by an aura of mystery. Interestingly, Model’s mystery is maintained even in this, the first major book of her photographs. The book is physically stunning—a deluxe 12- by 15-inch format contains 52 large prints—spanning the greater part of her career from the late 1930s to the early 1970s. It is the most complete view we have had of Model’s distinctive way of seeing. The photographs are accompanied by a chronology of Model’s life and career, a bibliography of articles about and shows by Model, and a brief introduction by photographer and Model’s long-time friend Berenice Abbott.

Already tagged as this season’s blockbuster photography book, and rightly so, for my money, this is an important documentation of the woman with a reputation for having penetrated reality with one of the most instinctive pair of eyes there is in photography, a trait that sets Model apart from and ahead of other photographers of her generation (Model was born in 1906). Further, it clarifies her influence on the mainstream of contemporary American photography. Among her students were Larry Fink, Rosalind Solomon, and the late Diane Arbus. She is always mentioned in her students’ literature and is sometimes discussed by them. (Larry Fink, for one, has reportedly said that it took him 15 years to truly understand what Model had once pointed out to him about the relationship of the photographer to subject.) However, Model is a figure whose position in the history of modern photography has not as yet been assessed. And if any reader expects this book to answer further questions concerning her sources, influences, career activities and the like—fair warning—these subjects are not the ones addressed in this book. What is addressed is the substance of her vision. Yet this, also, is offered in a carefully edited presentation in which any information about her life and career is secondary to the images themselves.

While, admittedly, this approach is particular to the category of high-priced photography books in which, generally, publishers tend to imitate coffee table travel books, toning up the prints and toning down the discussion—Ansel Adams: Yosemite and the Range of Light, the blockbuster of last season from New York Graphic Society, is one example which comes to mind—it is an approach which also accommodates Model’s mystery. Model, after all, is well known, like Garbo, for wanting to be alone, a sentiment which means, among other things, when translated to the realities of the photography field, not agreeing to any publication of her photographs in book form until one (this one) met her criteria: the large and necessarily expensive format, few interviews (in some cases she refused reprint permission for ones already given), and few statements about life, career, and photographs. In these, Model is noticeably public about her connections with Arnold Schoenberg, with whom she studied, and equally private about her connections with art in Paris. (She lived there from 1922 to 1939, during which time she studied painting and married the Russian painter Evsa Model.)

The almost accidental way in which she became a photographer adds to her mystery; her entry into the field sounds more like a film scenario than a slice of real life. Model reportedly took up photography only to prepare herself to make a steady living as a darkroom technician, but nearly the first clicks of her camera produced some of the most compelling portraits in 20th-century photography. Her portraits from Nice, the French Riviera, and Paris, taken in 1937–38, examples of which are included in this book, were recognized instantly by a few of the leading power brokers in the New York photography scene of 1940: Ralph Steiner, photographer and picture editor of the magazine P.M., Beaumont Newhall, head of the department of photography at the Museum of Modern Art, and Alexey Brodovich, art director of Harper’s Bazaar. By 1941, Model was working free-lance on assignments for Harper’s Bazaar. She continued until 1953, during which time she published in other magazines as well, including U.S. Camera and Look.

This book adheres strictly to Model’s aversion to publicity. It contains no statement by her and only one brief and general introduction. Abbott’s introduction is, in fact, a slightly shorter version of the one she wrote for a portfolio edition of Model’s photographs, published by Harry Lunn in 1976, one that was reproduced intact as the introduction to the monographic presentation of Model’s photographs put out by Camera, the international photography magazine, in its December 1977 issue. What’s different about it is simply that any references to other photographers by name or to photographers in general by deed—for example, in discussing Model’s interest in people, Abbott said in the longer version that “most photographers of accomplishment are drawn to and associated with a particular subject”—are out.

Model’s active contributions to the Camera issue are noted in the subtitle, which reads: “Layout, Text and Concept by Lisette Model With the Assistance of The Editorial of Camera.” Although Aperture is more discrete about her role in the making of this book, there are other indications besides Abbott’s essay that the extent of her involvement in it was similarly deep. While Marvin Israel, famous for his designs of books and exhibitions of photographs by Richard Avedon and Diane Arbus, is the designer of this book too, his layout recalls Model’s in Camera. In both, there is a non-chronological and sometimes thematic sequence in which, for instance, a varying number of seated subjects is broken by a standing one; this layout creates a self-referential context for the viewing of her work, one that is aided by the generally laconic captions accompanying them, giving in most cases just place and date. Such a context also discourages the kind of guessing game (at odds to mystery-making) that is concerned with developments in treatment of form and subject. An all-chronological or all-thematic arrangement can show and tell. The selection also relies heavily on Camera, using about 20 of the 24 examples in the magazine, and almost all the remaining 30-odd photographs are taken from the same series and essays as the others.

Some of the group were originally done for photo-journalistic assignments and some for Model herself, but there is no indication of context in accompanying captions. A look at the list of her published photographs in the bibliography, which is limited to the Harper’s Bazaar articles, reveals which examples were originally shot on assignment for that magazine. The portraits of Sammy’s Bar, a now destroyed, landmark night spot on the Bowery, were shot for “Sammy’s on the Bowery,” an article in the September 1944 issue. A look at the article, in turn, reveals the montage layout and small individual prints in which the photographs originally appeared. Although certainly seen to best advantage in larger prints, such as the ones in this book in which both form and content are monumentalized, Model’s images get the power of her vision across even in smaller prints, on pages with words, and in eccentrically patterned layouts of the kind used in magazines in the 1940s and 1950s.

A comparison of some of the prints in this book with the original reproductions in Harper’s Bazaar is revealing of the photographs’ simultaneously specific and universal character, a duality which is at the source of their strength and also at the heart of modern photography. After all, the same photograph, depending on presentation, can be either a practically propagandistic or transcendentally pure image of reality. Actually, isn’t that what much of modern photography is all about? So why celebrate one aspect—the pure side in this book—and ignore the other—the media side—when Model handles both so superbly? One example of this telling duality is the book’s cover photograph of the fat woman bather at Coney Island, New York’s most popular beach, in 1941 when she took it. When presented in a pure context, as it is here, this frontal image of a smiling, fat woman with hands on knees, her body tensed and rounded and ready to spring into action in some unknown beach-side game, transcends the original time, place, and intention, leaving reality behind for a realm of universal metaphors. It is interpreted as a life-affirming statement of human vitality. In its media context of the July 1941 issue of Harper’s Bazaar, this image had a specific part to play in an article on Coney Island. As such, it was printed in reverse, so that the women’s body faced the other page of the double-spread, on which there was a turn-of-the-century lithograph of “The Wooden Elephant, A Huge, Tin-Covered Hotel,” then destroyed, but previously a main attraction of Coney Island. Printed in the same size and positioned directly opposite each other, these two images were visually connected to accent the humorous side of the bather image, drawing associations, if questionable, between fat ladies and elephants. The accompanying caption to the bather emphasizes the humor: “CONEY ISLAND TODAY, THE BATHING PARADISE OF BILLIONS—WHERE FUN IS STILL ON A GIGANTIC SCALE.”

A comparison of other images in this book with their original reproductions in Harper’s Bazaar, including the portraits of Sammy's Bar and cityscapes of Fifth Avenue, are similarly revealing. The inclusion of some magazine reproductions in the book would have been a welcome addition, further illustrating Abbott’s perceptive though brief remarks concerning elements of humor and choice in Model’s vision. Although some photojournalism is represented in the selection, the examples here give only a limited and rarified picture of the wide subject range of her assignments for Harper’s Bazaar. It seems clear that Model has nothing to lose and everything to gain by broadening the context of the presentation of her photographs as they appeared in this book. Her photojournalism, particularly, underscores this.

Model’s photojournalism for Harper’s Bazaar falls into two categories. The first includes socially aware, slice-of-life subjects of the kind treated mostly by the weekly picture magazines and newspapers of the period like Life, the New York Daily News and Mirror. The second subsumes celebrities, theatre rehearsals and productions of interest to news and fashion magazines. Interestingly, Model turned her fashion assignments into photojournalist ones, using a real setting for “Accent on Ingenues,” an article about styles in young women’s evening costumes; she chose the Officer’s Club at the Hotel Delmonico in New York. At that time, unless the subject was casual or sportswear, fashion photographs more often than not had studio settings; the photographs by Louise Dahl-Wolfe in Harper’s Bazaar are examples. To the Delmonico essay, Model brought the approach she had developed for slice-of-life subjects like Coney Island and Sammy’s Bar. (She also did veterans’ rest homes, settlement houses, and women voting.)

Weegee, probably the best known today of the photojournalists then in New York, also photographed Coney Island and Sammy’s Bar, and a comparison of his images with hers is revealing of the differences which set her apart from her contemporaries. Model has discussed this issue in Interview (January 1980), in which she said: “The magazines [other than Harper’s Bazaar] didn’t want people to be seen the way I photographed them.” Model’s way of photographing them was certainly more abstract than Weegee’s or the others’, although her images were also more immediate and direct statements than theirs. Where Weegee depicted the subject of Coney Island narratively by photographing the masses on the beach, Model gave the same message (its being the resort for the urban “everyman”) abstractly in the way she photographed a single individual, the bather.

Weegee’s photographs of Sammy’s Bar are narrative in structure, offering a straightforward view of the people and place; Model’s are abstract, offering a constructive view of the people and place simultaneously, the two being inseparable. Weegee is also more interested in the appearance of the place, the contrasts caused when uptown café society and downtown poor mingle. Model’s interest is in penetrating appearances in order to get at the essence of Sammy’s Bar. This she achieves in candid, objectively frank portraits of different couples. Whether holding onto each other or with heads together in deep and intimate conversation, the couples give shape to the distinctive qualities of the place, its being a public space where individuals come to play out private passions and fantasies alone, with lovers or friends, always before strangers. In her photographs they enact this before Model’s camera and, ultimately, before us. Their feelings about themselves at the moment, whether of happiness, sadness, awareness or alcoholic numbness, are communicated in radically cropped, spatially distorted, dramatically lighted, sharply detailed forms. The compositions have a sophisticated elegance, based on intense and subtle contrasts in light, line and angle, and in certain examples they are printed diagonally to the rectangular format. Although rare (then) in the usual fare of photojournalistic images in New York, there are diagonally printed images among fashion photographs (by Landshoff for example) in Harper’s Bazaar. Fashion photography was, on the whole, more willing to apply such artistic devices having sources in Constructivist and Bauhaus photography (Alexander Rodchenko and T. Lux Feininger come to mind).

Model’s photojournalistic images, whether of the poor at Sammy’s Bar, the middle class at a voting hall, the rich at Delmonico’s, all have a distinctive glamour, making them appropriate to a fashion magazine in the business of defining a constantly changing, modern image of beauty. The images of many of her contemporaries were out of place here. What Model has done in them, I think, is zero in on the essence of glamour in America, which is the confident, sure-of-oneself bold expression and action, projecting individuality. In the fashion lingo of today, it’s described as “creating your own style,” while in sociological/psychological parlance it’s “being your own person.” Today, no one has to remind us how glamorous everyday life is. Given the media’s fantasy trip regarding everything from brushing your teeth to taking out the garbage, the concept has been totally democratized.

Model’s images, when viewed in the context of the artificial settings and contrived narrative situations then used to glamorize and thereby sell fashion, stand apart with their denser form and more substantial content. In short, hers, like any photojournalistic images, are imprinted with the authority of reality. And therefore they influenced the direction of the others—away from lightweight fantasies to a new, down-to-earth naturalness in tune with the times. For example, a few months after Model’s essay on women voters appeared in Harper’s Bazaar (June 1944), even such a master of the aloof fashion mannequin image as George Hoyningen-Huene shot his own version of the subject. Still, his women came out more like mannequins than believable citizens, and his static images, unlike Model’s dynamic and constructive ones, were out of step with the high-wire tension and hard-nosed sensibility of wartime America. Only a comparison with examples by her students and other leading contemporary photographers representative of documentary tendencies today can demonstrate how much ahead of the time, in structure and attitude alike, are Model’s photojournalistic images of the 1940s and 1950s. But that’s the subject of at least another article on Model or, better yet, another book of her photographs.

Ronny H. Cohen received her Ph.D. from the Institute of Fine Arts and writes frequently on a variety of art historical/critical subjects.


Lisette Model, Lisette Model: An Aperture Monograph, preface by Berenice Abbott, design by Marvin Israel (Millerton, New York: Aperture), 1979, 112 pages, 52 photographs.