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Home » Publications » Catalogue Excerpts » Lisette Model: A Performance in Photograpy

Lisette Model: A Performance in Photograpy

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Extract from the catalogue published by MSVU Art Gallery, 2011


Act I (1901-1933)

In1901 amidst the sunset decades of the Hapsburg dynasty, the woman who would later be known as Lisette Model was born into an upper-class Viennese family. Christened Elise Stern, she was to become one of the 20th century’s most influential photographers. There would not be the slightest indication that this was to be the case for more than thirty years. “Lisette,” as she was known in the family, spent her childhood in an opulent mansion near the Ringstrasse in the heart of Imperial Vienna. Her formative years were spent in the gilded era that preceded the Great War, a time that combined the stability and majesty of the old world with the dynamism of the new century’s incipient social and political developments. In 1903, Lisette’s father, a physician attached to the Emperor’s army, changed the family name to Seybert as a hedge against anti-Semitism. The Dreyfus case was convulsing France at the time.

Lisette was a middle child, flanked by a brother, Salvador, one year older, and a sister, Olga, eight years younger. Each child had an individual governess. Education was informal, provided by numerous tutors who came to 9 Josefgasse for all manner of lessons. First among them were the musicians, as every child was expected to be proficient on an assigned instrument. Lisette performed on the violin and later the piano. The family gathered daily to play “Hausmusik”; standards were set high and competition was encouraged. Vienna then was the creative centre of the music world, the place where Gustav Mahler directed the Imperial Court Opera and Richard Strauss composed Salome (1905) and Der Rosenkavalier (1911). Lisette was exposed to performance and required to perform.

Lisette matured undisturbed in culturally rich and privileged circumstances until the age of 17, when the 1918 defeat of the Central Powers in the Great War brought economic collapse to Germany and Austria. Dr. Seybert’s mainly Italian financial resources were exempt from the draconian financial reparations imposed by the Treaty of Versailles. Nevertheless, Lisette’s childhood world of grace and refinement evaporated. European civilization immediately began to undergo decades of catastrophic upheaval—uncertainty reigned in every country and at every level of society.

In 1920, at age 19, Lisette Seybert began attending her first and only educational institution, the experimental and informal Schwarzwald School. Students were allowed complete freedom to follow their inclinations and these were complemented by teachers of astonishing eminence. Lisette’s musical passions led to intensive studies with Arnold Schönberg, one of the founding proponents of atonal composition—brutish sounds generated by quasi-mathematical formulations. In addition to being an important music theorist and influential teacher of composition, Schönberg was a gifted painter. Lisette and her father became closely connected to the Schönberg family and its broad circle of avant-garde artists. Lisette must have achieved considerable proficiency as a performer, since Schönberg included her in his Private Musical Performances, a concert series he founded when the public rejected his dissonant compositions.

It could be argued that Schönberg’s music and Lisette’s eventual photographic style or “look” are linked. From her systematically aggressive shooting methods to her intentionally unrefined darkroom technique, a parallel could be drawn with Schönberg’s mature twelve-tone practice. Contrarily, Lisette’s image-content, saturated as it always was with human vitality, represented the opposite of Schönberg’s soulless anti-harmonies and is closer to the soaring verve of Richard Strauss. Many photographers nurture deep associations with music; some have referred to their negatives as “scores” and their prints as “performances.” Perhaps after dealing with the sharp-edged realities in front of their lenses, photographers find a balancing antidote in music, the most abstract of all the arts.

Although the immediate post-war period in Vienna must have felt somewhat tarnished and diminished, it did not affect the fundamentals of life at 9 Josefgasse. However, Dr. Seybert, who was afflicted with bouts of severe depression, received a cancer diagnosis in 1917. When he died in 1924 at age 58, the family slowly began to break up. Two years after his passing, Lisette’s mother and sister moved to Nice, while she stayed in Paris for individual musical studies.

The final eight years of Lisette’s Act I (1926-1933) were spent living alone in Paris, studying voice with elite teachers and performing privately. It must have been traumatic to be suddenly separated from a privileged and nurturing family at age 25. She recalled this period as one of great loneliness—one can visualize the elegantly attired young woman sitting by herself in chic Parisian bistros and then returning to her rooms to practice singing and perhaps occasionally working on small paintings. To relieve her solitude Lisette frequently boarded a train at the Gare de Lyon and joined her mother and sister in Nice.

The dramatic finale of Act I took place in 1933. Lisette abruptly and totally abandoned her music career. The reasons for this are unexplained as Lisette was always evasive on the subject. Perhaps she simply concluded that at age 32 her musical accomplishments were too slight to justify further efforts. Or possibly the energy that propelled her into photography could not be contained by the desiccated avant-garde music of the period. Whatever the reason, she dropped out of the music world forever.

Act II (1933-1956)

Lisette’s “little sister,” Olga Seybert, studied photography and trained in its practice in Vienna and Paris. When she moved with her mother to Nice in 1926, she set up her practice and darkroom there. Olga’s interests in photography were more technical than aesthetic and she would go on to a long career as a medical photographer. In late 1933, Olga, Lisette’s junior by eight years, provided her with instruction in basic camera operation, as did Rogi André, the ex-wife of André Kertész. In both cases that instruction was on a Rolleiflex, the very same camera with which Lisette was to make all of her significant photographs.

Over the 160 years since photography’s invention, many types of cameras have been developed. The choice of camera type is an important determinant in the eventual outcome of the act of shooting a frame. Lisette didn’t choose the Rolleiflex; it was simply what was readily available, what Olga owned. While it is true that one cannot determine what type of camera was used by looking at a finished photograph, the properties of the machine invariably influence the working methods and range of aesthetic choices available to the photographer.

The Rolleiflex was invented in Germany in 1928 and entered mass production in 1929. Lisette would thus have been introduced to an early, quite primitive model. It became the hand camera of choice of photographers such as André Kertész, Diane Arbus, and Helmut Newton. The Rolleiflex is a twin-lens reflex camera, really two cameras stacked one atop the other, each with its own lens. The “upper” camera is used exclusively for viewing and the “lower” one for film exposure. This separation of functions simplifies lens and mechanical design. The viewing camera contains a tapered mirror that reflects the scene up onto a ground glass plate surrounded by a collapsible hood to keep out stray light. Importantly, the image on the ground glass is continuously present even when making an exposure with the “lower” camera. As with all hand cameras there are only three things to adjust: aperture of the lens (intensity of light transmission), shutter speed (duration of light transmission) and lens focus (distance to the plane of sharpness). Aperture and shutter speed plus film type combine to determine the exposure, while the depth of focus is a consequence only of the “taking” lens aperture and is not observable on the ground glass. Although the number of variables is small, they all influence one another. This makes spontaneous camera operation a difficult skill to master, especially in unpredictable lighting situations.

In allowing the Rolleiflex to choose her, Lisette unwittingly started with the nearly ideal instrument for her temperament and picture-making ambitions. The camera is robust and unfussy to operate. Its roll film is easy to develop and the negatives are generously sized. As a highly trained musician she would have quickly adapted to the “fingering” of the camera’s controls. The crucial decision a photographer makes is in positioning the camera relative to the subject. Where to stand makes all the difference. And deciding where to stand must be confirmed by looking through the camera’s viewer.

When Lisette looked down into the Rolleiflex for the first time she would have noticed that the image, as viewed, was left-to-right reversed. This can be disconcerting—whatever was on one side of the ground glass image will be on the opposite side of the printed photograph. With much practice and the passage of time an experienced photographer’s mind will compensate for this aberration and “see” the image as un-reversed on the ground glass.

Astonishingly, Lisette’s introduction to rudimentary photographic practice in 1933 was followed in July of 1934 by her signature series of street portraits along the Promenade des Anglais. In Nice, Lisette stayed with her mother and her sister Olga, who was a technically experienced photographer with a functioning darkroom. Part of Lisette’s performance was to consistently polish the myth that she became a great photographer without study, instruction, or guidance. It strains all credulity that she could have progressed so far in less than a year without significant support and perhaps hands-on assistance. The only plausible source of such expertise was Olga.

The Promenade des Anglais stretches for several kilometers along the curve of the Baie des Anges from the Côte-d’Azur airport to the Nice Opera House on an east-west axis. The azure Mediterranean is bordered with a narrow cobble beach and a high retaining wall; the pedestrian-only Promenade is between the wall’s railing and the seafront buildings. Light reflects both from the sea and the buildings, creating an ideal outdoor studio, precisely the illumination that Henri Matisse, who was living nearby in Cimiez, so adored. Lisette always kept her back to the sea and took advantage of the fill-light that bounced off the buildings. The Promenade functioned as a very long stage on which the well-dressed young woman from Vienna and Paris could perform seamlessly amidst her fellow sybarites. Lisette wasn’t interested in the Promenade’s lyrical aspects, the merely fashionable or the lavish; she was searching for the dissonant, the visual analogue of Schönberg’s unstable tone combinations—the oddballs, the eccentrics, or the simply awkward looking.

How could she have shot these formidable personages, whom she didn’t know, and at such close range? In this the nature of the Rolleiflex plays a part. The camera is not ergonomically designed; three hands would be more useful than two for left-and-right-side controls plus camera support. Thus some intentional or other fumbling would be useful in disarming her prey. The consistent light of the Promenade permitted a preset exposure simplifying camera operation to the use of the knobs for focusing and film advance. When focusing the Rolleiflex the photographer is forced to bend forward to look down into the viewfinder and to adjust the focusing knob for maximum sharpness of the ground glass image. Thus eye contact with the subject is completely lost. The camera becomes the photographer’s mask or a sort of upside-down periscope. Lisette’s shooting method was to approach a subject, bend to her focusing, and shoot; then she changed the setting for focus to a shorter distance and while still bent forward moved in until the image was again sharp and immediately shot a second frame. Thus she tightened the frame while hiding from the subject. The performance required alacrity and panache; it avoided any interaction with the stranger, and the privacy of her framing technique remained inviolate.

Lisette gathered her Promenade negatives during the summer of 1934. She had her prints ready for publication in the February 1935 issue of the left-leaning Paris magazine Regards. The Regards article that accompanied the Promenade pictures was typical of communist rhetoric of the time; its description of Lisette’s subjects was denunciatory, inflammatory, and belittling. It is unlikely that Lisette would have approved of such crude literalism. She was well aware, even at this early point in her photographic career, that black and white photographs are not framed bits of verifiable reality, but rather transformations or maps of natural appearances, semi-abstract slices of time and place. The crassness of the Regards polemic would recur elsewhere in the years to come, and this delayed the nuanced and discriminating reading that Lisette’s images deserve.

The loneliness of her long Paris years as an unsuccessful musician had clearly ended. She discovered not only the magical expressiveness of photography in Nice, but also found the love of her life, Evsa Model. A painter in the Constructivist style, he had emigrated in 1920 from pre-Soviet Siberia to Paris, where he operated an avant-garde bookstore and art gallery. By all accounts Evsa was a kindly and indomitable man of egalitarian leftist principles. Lisette continued to shuttle between Paris and Nice. She worked her Rolleiflex in both places, expanding her range of subjects and refining her technique.

Lisette Seybert and Evsa Model married on 7 September 1937. A year later, with a European war clearly on the horizon and their immigration status in France dubious, they sailed for New York where Evsa had relatives. Lisette seems to have instantly seized on the exciting vitality of New York—this was a stage on which she could perform and she cast herself in the role of a “great refugee photographer.” When the Third Reich invaded Poland in the autumn of 1939, Lisette and Evsa were effectively cut off from their European roots and connections, and retreat from America was no longer an option.

Lisette vigorously promoted herself as an editorial and art photographer in New York, in marked contrast to her former dilettantish music career. Within a year of her arrival her prints were included in the inaugural photographic exhibition of Museum of Modern Art’s new photography department. The founding curator, Beaumont Newhall, worked under Alfred Stieglitz’s watchful eye to produce Sixty Photographs: A Survey of Camera Esthetics. Lisette shared a wall with her Viennese compatriot, “Weegee the Famous” (Arthur Fellig), the notorious “ambulance chaser” who specialized in Bowery mayhem.

Lisette marketed the Promenade series to a weekly called PM for publication in January 1941. The editors perversely chose the title, “Why France Fell,” and printed pejorative individual captions such as, “Greed, Cynicism, and Weariness.” That the pictures were made six years before France surrendered to Hitler or that on the cosmopolitan Promenade the crowd was highly international made not one whit of difference—this was a classic case of bogus interpretation.

The 1941 PM piece led to an important connection with the teacher, photographer, and art director of Harper’s Bazaar magazine, Alexey Brodovitch, a Russian émigré of privileged antecedents and very strong opinions on design and image evaluation. Brodovitch had a fluid visual syntax which was compatible with Lisette’s; she willingly cropped her images, tilted them on the enlarging easel, or allowed them to be bled into the gutter of the magazine, if that served the purposes of an overarching and innovative design concept. Brodovitch continuously sought newness of “look” or novelty for the magazine’s images as opposed to a consistency of vision. During the more than ten years that Lisette worked for Harper’s he pushed her into assignments that must have tested the limits of her tolerance. Assignment-driven work can be destructive to photographers with a delicate sense of individual vision. Lisette Model was confident in her immutable and robust picture-taking ways. The magazine assignments simply added to her list of self-directed challenges. She was able to navigate the shoals of commercial work because she knew that she was capable of taking only her kind of picture.

Her first assignment for Brodovitch involved an excursion to Coney Island, “The Bathing Place of Billions.” She came back with photographs of just one woman, the subject of one of her most famous images, Coney Island Bather. Performer confronts performer; the massive exhibitionist leans forward into the camera’s line of fire, comfortably supporting her bulk with beefy hands on knees, and obviously delighted to be briefly the centre of the camera’s attention. The effrontery of this bombastic picture, which was printed in what was ostensibly a fashion magazine, speaks to the creativity of the “glossies” in the era preceding television’s dominance.

Lisette’s war years were frenetic but seemingly peaceful, filled as they were with magazine assignments and numerous exhibitions. That changed in 1944. Spring brought the allied invasion of Normandy, the beginning of the end of the war in Europe. Lisette opened her solo exhibition at the Art Institute of Chicago early that autumn. Two letters then arrived with calamitous news, reporting that the French had deported her brother and his wife to Germany, and that her mother had died in Nice of throat cancer after enduring a period without food or money. Lisette, possibly as an act of expiation, aimed her camera at wealthy Americans consuming lavish restaurant meals and being entertained in ritzy hotels.

Between 1939 and 1945 Lisette undertook two important series of work. Reflections, in which she combined what was visible behind the highly stylized “dressed” window panes of New York department stores with what was dynamically reflected in them from the street. These prints harkened back to Eugène Atget’s view camera Paris photographs from the turn of the century. Also with the Rolleiflex, she made the Running Legs series with the camera nearly on the sidewalk, feet and legs of passersby striding along New York’s crowded pavements. This innovative work, using both close-up and an unusual camera position, has the flavour of Russian Constructivism and 1920s Bauhaus “New Vision.”

In the summer of 1946, Lisette and Evsa travelled by Pullman car from New York to Chicago to San Francisco. Both had teaching engagements at the San Francisco School of Fine Arts. Ansel Adams had recently instituted the school’s photography department. Ansel and Lisette quickly developed a lasting collegial relationship—he as the dean of the west coast photographic technophiles, she as a charter member of the New York School. While on the coast, Lisette undertook on her own initiative to make a series of portraits of the luminaries of the Bay Area art scene, such as Imogen Cunningham, Salvador Dalí, Darius Milhaud, and Edward Weston. It is tantalizing to speculate on the portrait-making encounter with Edward Weston. He was the first photographer to receive a Guggenheim Fellowship (1937). He had just been given a 250-print retrospective at MoMA. He was to the west coast of America what Alfred Stieglitz was to the east. It would have been a tough session for Lisette. Edward was a past master of the intimate photo-shoot; he’d have been watching her closely, warily, and with some bemusement. Which part from her repertoire did she perform on that day? Did she play the supercilious Viennese sophisticate, the battle-hardened refugee, the committed political leftist, or the urbane New Yorker between fashion assignments? Whatever the performance the photographic results were uninspiring and mask-like. Perhaps Edward was feeling the harbingers of the Parkinson’s disease with which he would be soon be diagnosed.

In the half-decade immediately after WWII, 1945-1950, Lisette continued to collect negatives of “specialist personalities” that she sought out on the streets and in the taverns and freak shows of New York. Her chosen subjects, the deformed, the indigent, and the exhibitionistic, were not at all ordinary. She used her “Promenade” framing and timing methods to amplify their deviancy while allowing just enough contextualizing, and thus authenticating, detail to leak into the frame. Lisette’s gaze honoured the majesty of the physically real person on the other side of the Rolleiflex while allowing free rein to the transformative power of her obsessions. She was never satisfied only with mapping the real onto film. For her the real needed enhancement; the real needed performance energy. Lisette was acutely conscious of, and completely accepted, that her photographic ‘look’ would trigger in the minds of her viewers a vaster world, one that casual observation could not call forth.

In the summer of 1949 Lisette and Evsa returned to San Francisco. The Guggenheim Fellowship for which Ansel Adams had sponsored her failed to materialize. Adams and others in the “f/64” group of west coast photographers arranged for Lisette to substitute teach Minor White’s course at San Francisco School of Fine Arts. This was an important development. Lisette quickly proved herself to be a natural at teaching—charismatic and inspirational. Apparently she did not instruct per se, rather she taught by example and by the encouragement of tendencies she divined in her students. Reports of her talents as a teacher would get back to the New School of Social Research in New York.

Years of adversity followed from 1950 to 1956. Lisette was troubled and depressed. She suffered a crisis of confidence notwithstanding her pushy public persona. Sources of frustration included the Guggenheim grant failure, her declining cachet in the magazine trade, and an over-familiarity with her Rolleiflex. Professional setbacks were new to Lisette. After all, she had been accorded nearly instant success from the start—her Promenade pictures appeared in print within a year of her picking up a camera.

The fifties were a period of prosperity, anxiety, and paranoia in the USA. The latter quality was typified by another “Red Scare” in the form of McCarthyism, a nationwide witch hunt for putative subversive elements. As the birthplace of Abstract Expressionism, post-war New York was the epicentre of the visual art world, in spite of, or perhaps in reaction to, the repressive political atmosphere. Lisette’s depression deepened during these, the worst of the McCarthy years. She felt inhibited; she felt that work such as hers, work that had a significant social realist component, was unacceptable. As a performer and as a photographer, Lisette sought approbation, not disapproval.

In the fifties, she used her Rolleiflex less and less; her production of significant images declined proportionally. Lisette experimented with a 35mm Leica rangefinder camera and apparently found the transition awkward and the results not much to her liking. The much smaller camera was a completely different instrument—the ground glass image was replaced by a tiny peephole viewfinder; focusing was achieved by making coincident the image framed in the viewfinder with a displaced “ghost” image; eye contact with the subject was unavoidable; and the naturally low (bellybutton) camera position of the Rolleiflex that she had exploited so successfully for so long was replaced by an eyelevel camera position. She must have felt inhibited by these changes, hesitant to raise the small camera to her eye after the comforting seclusion of looking down into the Rolleiflex.

By 1953 Lisette and Evsa found themselves in straitened financial circumstances. They pooled what money they had to send Lisette to Europe with the intention of reclaiming some of her inherited Italian real estate. Over a period of five months, Lisette gathered about 1000 negatives with her Leica. She more or less forgot about people as subjects and instead pointed her camera at the ruins and monuments of Rome. She found that she could express herself with pictures of the small things: fragments of sculpture, details of buildings, and neglected ancient icons. For these five months, alone without Evsa, and after a 14 year absence from Europe, Lisette seemed to have craved quietude of subject matter and solitude in image making. For her character in the performance, these internalized studies of things past were soliloquies, personal meditations spoken from an empty stage to an unseen audience in a darkened theater. The Roman open-air still lifes are the coda to her dissonant Schonbergian photographic vision, intense miniatures echoing his compositions.

At the age of 55, Act II of her performance as an image creating photographer was drawing to a close. By 1956 Lisette essentially stopped collecting negatives, just as she had abruptly stopped being a practicing musician in 1933. Exhibitions and books about her work thereafter never cite an image date later than 1956. Though she was frequently seen wearing a camera for another 25 years, very little film was ever exposed and what remained was almost completely unprinted. The camera became a stage prop for her new character as visionary teacher and assiduous creator of her own legend.

It was now increasingly evident that Lisette had become an inveterate falsifier of the facts of her life. She performed the role of what the French call a mythomane, which suggests someone who exaggerates and dissembles for the love of her own legend and not for any personal gain. Some saw this trait as self-serving aggrandizement, others as endearingly Viennese; and analogous to her aesthetic surely they were a shield for deeply private vulnerabilities.

Let us pause for a moment to reflect on two of Lisette’s most widely admired photographs, Woman with Veil (San Francisco, 1949) and Belmont Park (New York, 1956). The truism “people see what they want to see” is especially apt when applied to the viewing of exceptional photographs. Some see into the frame as if through a window while others see a partial reflection of themselves somewhat like that from a half-silvered mirror.

Woman with Veil has been the subject of the widest possible range of interpretations. Some observers see in this image a predatory shrew, at once ferocious and pathetic, a posturing weasel-woman looking like “mutton dressed as lamb.” Other viewers see her differently; they perceive a dignified elderly woman heroically struggling to maintain her worthiness in an increasingly alien milieu. This wide disparity of reactions is rooted in the picture’s destabilizing compositional elements. The dynamic slope of the background, the oblique angle of Lisette’s approach, the subject’s sideways glance, and spiraled posture all contribute, but the key emotional element is the smeared lipstick on a twisted mouth. The ambiguity of that mouth is amplified by her overdone getup, from the blond wig and penciled eyebrows to the frilly blouse and oversized purse. When Lisette found Woman with Veil at the trolley stop there would have been no time to consciously think of any of these things, only time for a single exposure. Instinct and intuition, the result of years of camera work, coalesced to produce this magical moment.

Belmont Park was one of Lisette’s last fully realized photographs. It is an unusual outlier in her body of work. The organization of the frame is taut, rectilinear, and solidly constructed. Mrs. Solomon unambiguously confronts Lisette eyeball-to-eyeball from her private seat at the horseracing track. The reflective chair-backs make a patterning apparatus on which the off-centre figure looks to be suspended. This armature is enhanced by the line of the railing passing behind her unblinking gaze. The target of Lisette’s time-slicing machine is clearly en garde. She has removed her reading glasses and her large feet are spread apart. She is ready to lunge forward if further provoked by the encroaching white-haired woman with a camera. The noise of the shutter then announced the end of the encounter and rendered any verbal objections superfluous. There is always some sense of elation when walking away from a shot well stolen.

Act III (1956-1983)

The third and final act of Lisette’s performance in photography opens in the mid-fifties with her role as preceptor and ecstatic at Columbia University’s New School of Social Research. She used a Socratic method of imparting knowledge to her students. Very little information or instruction was given directly; instead she posited individually tailored questions designed to bring students to the recognition of what they needed to know. She had used her own unresolved psychological conflicts and childhood traumas to mine from herself the inspiration that was realized in her art. She facilitated similar epiphanies in the minds in her students. As if she had proclaimed, “My vulnerability is my shield,” she “taught” students by osmosis that feeling fundamentally wounded was a strength from which to work, and that psychic damage was a gift, offering its owner intensified visual awareness.

In 1958 Lisette’s most important student came into her life—Diane Arbus. Diane Arbus was in transition; she aspired to art-making after years of sharing a commercial fashion photography business with her husband, Allen. Diane rightly recognized in Lisette the catalyst she required to turn commercial dross into artistic gold. She unsuccessfully badgered Lisette to purchase pints, then reluctantly attended the New School classes, and finally became Lisette’s private student. The two women had much in common: both had enjoyed a childhood spent in very wealthy circumstances, leaving them with a sense of privilege and entitlement; and both lusted for fame.

Early in their relationship, Lisette gave Diane a print of Coney Island Bather, which she framed and hung permanently on her studio wall. It was this, and similar images of Lisette’s, that Diane used to kick-start her own visual style. The all-too-willing protégé even switched from a 35mm camera to 6x6 cm Rolleiflex, at about the same time as Lisette was doing the opposite. The understudy’s performance was about to eclipse that of the star.

With Lisette’s recommendation, Diane received the coveted Guggenheim fellowship of 1963. Over the course of succeeding years the friendship between Lisette and Diane became a public legend that both women nurtured with an extravagance usually observed in theatre green-rooms or mutual-admiration cocktail parties. Although Diane appropriated the Lisette Model “look,” she greatly expanded its conceptual range and refined its execution. That she did this after Lisette had effectively ceased making photographs must have been hard for the older woman to bear. Diane did not replicate Lisette’s anonymous hit-and-run shooting method. She aggressively and pathologically stalked and besieged her subjects. This predatory approach automatically filtered out all but those individuals who were as close to the edge of the mental health chasm as she was. By 1971, when Diane committed suicide, there was no longer any psychological distance between the schizophrenic photographer and her deformed, mutilated, and deviant subject-victims. We don’t know how Lisette felt about her protégé’s exit, but she must have felt some ambivalence, perhaps even relief.

Tragically, Evsa sustained a catastrophic heart attack in January 1976 that rendered him an invalid. Lisette and Evsa were an intensely bonded couple and helpmeets in art. As Lisette stopped actively photographing, Eva eventually stopped painting; they both became inspiring teachers, partnering in this as in all their endeavours. When Evsa died late that year Lisette’s sense of grief and abandonment must have been excruciating. Photographs age into memorials eventually, as the slice of time in which they were taken distances itself from the present. The widow Lisette must have felt both pang and comfort when she encountered her commanding 1950 portrait of Evsa. He sits bare-chested, chain-smoking as usual, with a penetrating stare. He looks into the mirror of Lisette’s camera and he also looks out of his own window. This fine picture is as close as Lisette ever came to a nude image.

The editor of the influential Swiss magazine Camera, Allan Porter, visited New York frequently for research and talent spotting. From the mid-60s onward one of his most valuable contacts was Lisette Model. They met for tea or at openings for exchanges of views and information. On a spring visit in 1977 he proposed publishing an entire Camera issue, a monograph, on Lisette’s work. Allan Porter was an astute editor and very perceptive about the artists he worked with. Knowing Lisette’s tendency to occupy centre stage and detecting that she craved a creative challenge, he essentially handed over his editorial prerogatives to her. He would facilitate and manage the mechanics; she would make the decisions. Lisette ejected outright the idea of printing an interview. She had performed for interviewers numerous times and had told them all differing stories—a printed interview represented a potential trap.

The issue of Camera that Lisette laid out included a personal and sensitive introduction by Allan Porter, a statement by Berenice Abbott who taught with Lisette at the New School, reproductions of a twelve photograph portfolio printed with her supervision by Harry Lunn, the artist’s statement of Lisette’s successful 1965 Guggenheim application, and a short (auto)biography. The Guggenheim application, “The Image of our Image,” proposed a project to photograph the American Dream in all its glamour, a self-portrait of the “Marilyn Monroe” nation. The terse “biography” written in the first person singular adjusts the facts to suit the current version of her legend. In October, Lisette was invited to Lucerne to oversee all aspects of the December 1977 issue. This was one of Lisette’s most enjoyable experiences in the photo-world. She adored the town and after a ten-year absence from Europe, memories flooded in immediately and her mood lightened. She liked the intimate working atmosphere of the magazine’s office and the sense that she could entirely control the product. Evenings were enjoyed in the 800-year-old-town, especially hearing Herbert von Karajan conduct Mahler’s 6th Symphony, a favourite of her father’s from all those years ago in Vienna.

The surrealist photographer Ralph Gibson used his own publishing house, Lustrum Press, to print a book in 1977 of articles on darkroom printing techniques. He invited photographers who were admired for their darkroom skills to contribute illustrated articles written in their own words. Among those who accepted the invitation were Larry Clark, Eikoh Hosoe, and George Tice. The book was well received by the photographic fraternity, so much so that a second volume, Darkroom2, appeared the next year. To this volume Lisette contributed an article, as did Emmet Gowin, Aaron Siskind, and Cole Weston.

Lisette largely ignored the stated mandate of the project, which was to elucidate her darkroom working methods. What she wrote was a version of her life story, the 1978 edition of her legend. It included many of the now familiar but verifiably false assertions, however it also contained forthright statements of her beliefs about what photography is and should be. Because Lisette herself wrote it, late in life, and for fellow photographers, the article is now more valuable than one on darkroom mechanics would have been.

In a 1974 interview with Jonathan Green for the book The Snapshot published by Aperture, Lisette stated:

“If I were to print a book of snapshots, I would do it in its own spirit. On the front page there would be one snapshot, and in the inside pages would be loosely distributed images without introduction, without philosophy, without explanations, without captions, so that for once people would be free to discover for themselves, without being told what to see.”

This statement of intentions, for what she considered to be the ideal photo-book, is a functionally accurate description of her Aperture monograph that was launched in 1979. The book has become one of the germinal volumes in the history of photographic publishing. The oversized monograph was designed by Marvin Israel, a respected painter, an influential art director, and a collaborator with, and guru to, Richard Avedon and Diane Arbus. Lisette knew Marvin Israel as Diane’s daemon lover and the man who discovered her partly decomposed body. The book’s faithfulness to Lisette’s original concept is probably due in part to a wary relationship between artist and designer. Significantly, it was reprinted in 2007 to mark the twenty-fifth anniversary of Lisette’s death in 1983.

Lisette Model's career spanned most of the twentieth century. The legacy of her art and teachings influenced generations of photographers. Her signature images have an intrinsically magical quality, and the patina of age has served to deepen their meaning.

"I am a passionate lover of the snapshot, because of all photographic images it comes closest to truth.... The snapshooter('s) pictures have an apparent disorder and imperfection, which is exactly their appeal and their style. The picture isn't straight. It isn't done well. It isn't composed. It isn't thought out. And out of this imbalance, and out of this not knowing, and out of this real innocence toward the medium comes an enormous vitality and expression of life."

—Lisette Model
from an interview with Philip Lopate

George Steeves
Guest Curator


Bosworth, Patricia. Diane Arbus (New York: Norton; 2005,1984)

Flattau, John; Gibson, Ralph; Lewis, Arne. Darkroom2 (New York: Lustrum Press, 1978)

Frizot, Michel (et al). The New History of Photography (Köln: Könemann, 1998)

Israel, Marvin (designer). Lisette Model: An Aperture Monograph (Millerton, New York: Aperture, 1979)

Livingston, Jane. The New York School Photographs 1936-1963 (New York: Stewart, Tabori & Chang; Professional Imaging Eastman Kodak Company, 1992)

Parr, Martin and Badger Gerry. The Photobook: A History volume II (London: Phaidon, 2006)

Parry, Eugenia. Lisette Model a narrative autobiography (Göttingen: Steidl, 2009)

Phillips, Sandra (et al). Diane Arbus Revelations (San Francisco Museum of Modern Art: Random House, 2003)

Porter, Allan (ed.). Lisette Model (Lucerne, Switzerland: Camera #12, 1977)

Tellgren, Anna (ed.) Arbus, Model, Strömholm (Stockholm: Moderna Museet and Steidl Verlag, 2005)

Thomas, Ann. Lisette Model (Ottawa: National Gallery of Canada, 1990)

Thomas, Ann and Zelich, Cristina. Lisette Model (Madrid: Fundación Mapfre, 2009)

Sontag, Susan. On Photography (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1977)

Warren, Lynne (et al). Encyclopedia of Twentieth-Century Photography Vol. 2 (Routledge: New York 2006)

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