“Never take up anything you are not passionate about”: this is the advice Lisette Model received from Rogi André, a now-forgotten photographer and André Kertész’s first wife. It was 1933, and Lisette would soon abandon music for photography. Born in Vienna in 1901, she moved to France, her mother’s native country, in 1926. Although her interest in photography dates to that period, her most famous pictures, covering the most prolific period in her career, 1939–1949, were taken in New York, where she immigrated in 1938. One of her most iconic photos represents a corpulent bather on the beach at Coney Island.
It’s no doubt because Lisette Model took Rogi André’s advice to heart that she was so creative in her approach to the street at a time when street photography was only beginning to take off. Already in her first series, created in 1934, she “sketched” the bourgeoisie frequenting the Promenade des Anglais in Nice. She seemed to be taking malicious pleasure in highlighting ridiculous attires and postures. She captured the passers-by mid-grimace, squinting, or slumping in a chair. Her penetrating gaze, combining insolence and audacity, was honed even further in New York.
The question she confronted was, inevitably, how to capture the modernity of the American city, the first vertical city, viewed by Europeans as a “new world”? While others, such as her contemporary, Berenice Abbott, privileged skyscrapers, Lisette Model walked the streets and focused on the passersby. Her style adapted to the specific moods of the New York streets to best capture the bustling crowds and the city’s effervescence.
Her series “Running Legs” (1940–1941) is made up of closeups of legs and feet. It captures both the streets teeming with crowds and the mad rush of the pedestrians. At the same time, Lisette Model was interested in storefront reflections and shadows. Here, she produced even more complex images, with entanglements and superimpositions of silhouettes and buildings, where it is difficult to tell apart reality and illusion. She thus opens a door to abstraction and stimulates the viewer’s imagination.
While Lisette Model was fascinated with the general feel of the city and the anonymity of the crowd, she never lost sight of individuals. “Pedestrians” delivers clandestine portraits of passersby, while another series focuses on bars and nightclubs in two popular neighborhoods, the Lower East Side and the Bowery. Lisette Model’s great merit was to be interested in all social classes. She was able to find the extraordinary and a grain of timeless truth in the banality of the everyday, as evidenced by her views of Coney Island (1939–1941).
Throughout her career, Lisette Model made a living from press assignments, especially for Harper’s Bazaar. From the 1940s, her work was exhibited at the MoMA in New York and at the Arts Institute of Chicago. She also left her mark as a teacher, with Diane Arbus being her most famous student. The advice she gave her students was, “Photograph with your guts!”
By Sophie Bernard
Sophie Bernard is a journalist specializing in photography, a contributor to La Gazette de Drouot and Le Quotidien de l’Art, a curator, and a teacher at EFET in Paris.
Lisette Model, Sidewalk, Baudoin Lebon Gallery, September 8 to October 2, 2021. New address : 21, rue Chapon 75003 Paris.