PRINT Summer 1983


Lisette Model

Lisette Model, 1906–83
It is unfashionable to acknowledge the existence of artistic temperament; the idea of equality implies, superficially, that everyone is as good as another, and that to be equal is to be alike. Lisette Model had a full share of this unpopular temperament, first as a promising musician, later as a photographer. Photography is apparently the most democratic of the arts; anyone may try it—wonderful pictures are sometimes the result of an accident. What makes a great print? Not, above all, the mechanical ability (which any child could command) to print maximum black, white, and all the intermediate tones, but merely this: either one’s printing style is accepted or it isn’t. Model realized this. Her remark “They say I’m a bad printer . . . they should see my negatives,” was retired during her late period of public acclaim, and she became rather grand about her printing.

Of the thousands of students who flocked to Model’s classes, very few had the psychological knowledge of what it means to be an artist. In observing Model as a teacher, it seemed to me that the principal thing she taught was how to think as an artist. A dichotomy is often implied between intuition and intelligence. For Model this schism never existed. The mechanism of her brilliant intuitive intellect was so transparent that everybody could see how it worked. She was not successful in every case—what teacher is?—and when one student loutishly inquired why the quality of work in the Master Class was so poor, she snapped back with “because there are no longer any Master Students.” She was always a realist. When a student asked about her own photographic education, she replied with the truth: “none of the great photographers had teachers.”

With her famous picture of a fat woman playing at the beach, Model turned upside down our assumptions of what is beautiful about the human figure. This was her gift—every one of her pictures calls into question every tenet we hold about beauty. Her portraits are activist, missionary, political works. They issue a radical challenge which we are obliged to answer: “look at these amazingly unappealing human forms. See their transfiguring radiance. Do you dare to find them ugly? If you do, by what despicably superficial concept of beauty do you judge them? What kind of a person are you!” This challenge was continued by Diane Arbus, but Model did not have the deep-rooted pessimism of her gifted pupil, whom she hoped would carry on her teaching work. She tried to dispel the terrible notion that the subjects of Arbus’ photographs were freaks, or perceived as such by the photographer. This was completely to misinterpret Arbus’ work, and insofar as the same attitude has sometimes attached itself to Model’s work, is equally to misinterpret one of the most positive testaments to the beauty of the human figure ever created.

A critic once accused Model of “fragmentation,” which put her in a towering rage. “Let them read Krishna Murti,” she stormed, “they will find out what fragmentation means!” This artist had the fearlessness to look at a world in unprecedented disintegration, and the strength to offer us a strategy for living in it with dignity and—I dare to say it—virtue.

William Tropp