Lisette Model

By arranging Lisette Model’s photographic output into a series of neat, digestible categories—photoessays, portraits, and subject themes—this retrospective mistakenly encourages us to see her photographic output wholly within the context of the Photo League’s “social documentary” tradition. Model, however, often admitted she didn’t really know the meaning of the term. Using small, lightweight portable 35mm cameras, she experimented with a straight-on “shoot from the gut” snapshot esthetic to produce sardonic exposés of the American dream. Less calculating than her colleagues in the Photo League, her style seems closer in temperament to the paintings of George Grosz than to the photos of Walker Evans. By capturing the human subject in all its garish detail as a social event, devoid of any historic or ideological underpinning, Model jarred the psyche of more than one of her more conservative contemporaries—so much so, in fact, that Paul Strand would comment, “You cannot photograph America that way.”

While Model came to photography late in life, her earliest photoseries entitled “Promenade des Anglais,” 1934, of aging, bespectacled aristocrats and bulimic seated grandes dames casting their gaze on the seaside at Nice, already revealed a fearless eye for the photo juste. During the ’40s and ’50s—her most productive professional years—she received numerous commissions from such magazines as Look, Vogue, PM’s Weekly, U.S. Camera, and Cosmopolitan. Alexey Brodovitch, then artistic director of Harper’s Bazaar, remained one of Model’s staunchest supporters, using her unconventional style to promote the antifashion of popular culture within a fashion magazine. Whether her subjects were elegantly dressed women at a fashion show in the Hotel Pierre, opulent opera-goers in San Francisco, or the dispossessed on Delancey Street on Manhattan’s Lower East Side, her photos present the American Dream in all its contorted extremes, unscreened by the filter of reason.

In her “Reflection” series, 1940–45, she used the typical American storefront window filled with the various props of the mercantile trades—tailors’ dummies with light bulbs for heads, mannequins in bridal gowns, or piles of old shoes beside a Bingo poster for the Palestine Theatre—to frame the chaos of the city. The dark, shadowy, semiabstract reflections of passers-by hybridize glamour and antiglamour. Her close-up photos of the etched, creased faces of bag ladies, transvestites, circus performers, boozing couples, and street vendors are treated with the same equanimity as her portraits of the such famous personalities as Weegee, Valeska Gert, Frank Sinatra, Dylan Thomas, Henry Miller, Louis Armstrong, Dorothea Lange, and J. Robert Oppenheimer. As in all her social portraits, Model focuses almost exclusively on the descriptive potential of the personalities themselves, without falling back on environmental backdrops.

Though the quality of her photo compositions and cropped formats varies greatly from the deeply penetrating, well-orchestrated ceremonies of the present to images that are merely ill-defined and transient, their strength rests in Model’s open, spirited approach. It was one that extended the range of potential subjects for a future generation of American photographers, notably her students Diane Arbus and Rosalind Solomon. Model’s unequivocal sense of the ongoing absurdity of life unmasked the social disparities implicit in the America she came to know in a highly personal way. She presented it as a vast, libidinous dream clothed in the ambiguities of each subject’s expectations.

John K. Grande

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