Lisette Model is a lesser-known name in the world of photography, but she was one of the iconic photographers of her generation. She managed to craft a uniquely special approach to her art that was celebrated by many. She was born into a wealthy family in Vienna to an Austrian-Italian father and a French mother. As a result, she grew up as a truly international cosmopolitan individual and cherished the education imparted to her, by her private tutors. Her early teens were spent traveling with the composer Arnold Schoenberg and also looked upon him as her greatest teacher and mentor.
After her father died, Model moved to Paris, where she was initially planning to continue with her musical education. It was only after her marriage to painter Evsa Model did she began to take an interest in photography as an art form. Lisette’s sister on the other hand, was actually an amateur photographer and one day Lissett borrowed a Rollweiflex camera from her and learned to use it with the help of a friend. In those very early days of learning, e one of the most important and valuable lessons she learnt served her throughout the rest of her career : “Never take a picture of anything you are not passionately interested in.”
Lisette and Evse Model came to the USA in 1937 in order to meet their parents, who were in New York at the time. This came as somewhat of a culture shock for Lisette. The change from Europe to New York was too drastic and she struggled to fit in and felt rather overwhelmed during the initial days. By her own admission, she did not take any pictures for upto a year and half, such was the difference in setting the uneasiness.
By late 1940, Model managed to get her first pictures published in the US by a magazine called Cue, which was a weekly magazine, devoted to documenting the city and life in New York. A short while after this, she managed to get her Riviera pictures published in P.M. magazine under the title “Why France Fell”. Even though the pictures created a kind of hysteria, Model was aghast and highly displeased with the editorial criticism that the pictures received from certain sections of the media.
After the P.M. fiasco, she was approached by numerous publications of high stature throughout the country. She was introduced to Alexi Brodovitch, who was then the art director of Harper’s Bazaar magazine, who expressed enthusiasm and interest in her work. In 1942, Look magazine published some of her pictures of a patriotic rally in downtown New York under the title “The Boys are Fighting”, following which her pictures appeared in a slew of magazines such as Vogue, The Saturday Evening Post, Modern Photography, Cosmopolitan and others.
A one person show of her work was held for the first time in 1941 at the Photo League followed by similar shows at the Chicago Art Institute and the San Francisco Palace of the Legion of Honor. Edward Steichen, who was the director of Photography at the Museum of Modern Art called her one of the foremost photographers of the generation and managed to shed some light on Model’s style and why it was so impactful.
It was the way in which she approached her subjects with a certain directness that set her apart from others. She had a special penchant for capturing massive structures cropped from close distances and because of this many of her prints turned out to be large in size. . She summed up her approach perfectly when she said, “I have often been asked what I wanted to prove by my photographs. The answer is, I don’t want to prove anything. They prove to me, and I am the one who gets the lesson.”