"The camera is an instrument of detection. We photograph not only what we know, but also what we dont know" Lisette Model
Lisette Models approach to the photographic medium as well as to the subjects of her pictures is direct and uncompromising. Things as she spontaneously reacted to, not poured into a preconceived mold of vision, but unstaged and untampered with, were the stuff of Models pictures. Her photographs were national magazines and in shows at New Yorks Museum of Modem Art and elsewhere gained her perhaps her greatest admiration from within the photographic profession itself.
Lisette Model was born into a wealthy Viennese family. Her father was Italian-Austrian and her mother French. Consequently her education was an international one, learning to speak three languages, travelling a great deal, being educated by private tutors rather than in public schools. Music was always an important part of her familys life. In her early teens, she studied with the composer Arnold Schoenberg and lived for several years within the circle of his friends. "If ever in my life I had one teacher and one great influence, it was Schoenberg," she said.
After the death of her father, Model moved to Paris where she continued her musical education. "Everything was concentrated on the ear...at that time I was not trained to see anything." While living in Paris two very important events took place: she married the painter Evsa Model, and she began to take photographs. Lisettes sister was an accomplished amateur photographer. One day Lisette borrowed her Rolleiflex and, with the help of a friend, learned to use it. In those early days of her photographic career she learned a lesson which was of the greatest importance to her photography: "Never take a picture of anything you are not passionately interested in."
In 1937 Lisette and Evsa Model came to the United States to visit his parents. Compared to Europe the newness of New York and its fantastically different visual aspect was at first an overwhelming experience. "For a year and a half I took no pictures. I was blind because it was all too different."
Models first pictures were published in the
United States in late 1940 by Cue, a weekly magazine devoted to activities in New
York City. They were of multiple reflections in the plate-glass windows of fashionable
Fifth Avenue shops. Sometime later her Riviera pictures were published in P.M. Magazine
under the title "Why France Fell." The pictures created a sensation but
Model was appalled at the editorial slant that had been given them. "I know why
France fell and it was for many complex reasons. It certainly was not because of these
rich bourgeoisie types."
After the P.M. story, the doors of many national publications began to open. Ralph Steiner, art director of P.M., introduced her to Alexy Brodovitch, then art director of Harpers Bazaar, who was enthusiastic about her work. In 1942, Look published her photographs of an open air patriotic rally in downtown New York under the title "Their Boys are Fighting." A special blank verse text was written to accompany the pictures by Carl Sandburg. Model pictures also appeared in The Ladies Home Journal, Vogue, The Saturday Evening Post, Popular Photography, Modern Photography, U. S. Camera, Cosmopolitan and other magazines.
The first one-person show of her work was held at
the Photo League in 1941, followed by one-person shows at the Chicago Art Institute and
the San Francisco Palace of the Legion of Honor. Her photographs have appeared in several
exhibitions at The Museum of Modern Art from 1940 on (at first under the direction of
Beaumont Newhall and later under Edward Steichen). A one-person travelling show of her
pictures was later circulated by the museum.
Edward Steichen, at that time Director of Photography at The Museum of Modern Art said: "Lisette Model is one of the foremost photographers of our time. Her prints record a relentless probing and searching into realities among people, their foibles, senselessness, sufferings, and on occasion their greatness. The resulting pictures are often camera equivalents of bitter tongue lashings. She strikes swift, hard and sharp, then comes to a dead stop, for her work is devoid of all extraneous devices or exaggerations."
It is this direct, straightforward relationship to her subject matter that is responsible for the nobility of Models images. She was drawn to massive forms cropped close from her Rolleiflex negatives. The size of her prints were often large (14X17 or 16X20 inches) because the massive subject matter seems to demand this scale. About her own work she commented: "I have often been asked what I wanted to prove by my photographs. The answer is, I dont want to prove anything. They prove to me, and 1 am the one who gets the lesson."
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