Preserving Model’s Legacy


Lisette Model, Coney Island Bather, New York (c. 1939 – July 1941), gelatin silver print, 34.5 x 27.2 cm. NGC. © Lisette Model Foundation


One hot summer’s day on Coney Island around 1940, a heavy-set woman in a swimsuit called out to a passerby with a heavy camera, “Lady, take a picture of me!” Standing like a linebacker, with feet planted apart and hands on knees, the Rubenesque bather posed in front of a sniggering audience on the beach. “You stupid people,” she called out, wearing a broad smile. “Have you never seen a fat woman?”

That’s how major American photographer Lisette Model — the woman behind the camera — recalled it in a 1979 interview. Her famous Coney Island Bather, New York (c. 1939–July 1941) is classic Model: bold and exuberant, revealing the eccentricities of human subjects with tenderness and humour. It is also one of over two hundred photographs donated to the National Gallery by the artist’s estate in 1990.

That was the year the Gallery mounted a retrospective exhibition of Model’s work, topping off four years of research by Ann Thomas, Curator of Photographs. Over lunch at an Ottawa café, Thomas spoke of her early fascination with another work by Model, Woman with Veil, San Francisco (1949), which was for a long time the only one of her photographs in the Gallery’s collection. In it, a birdlike woman sits on a park bench, seemingly ready for an occasion, with her ruffles, fox fur and face powder. “There’s just something very animated and wonderful about that portrait,” muses Thomas.

Lisette Model was born in Vienna in 1901 and moved to France in 1924, taking up photography while visiting her mother in Nice. It was her audacious images of the flaneurs on the Promenade des Anglais that caught the attention of Harper’s Bazaar magazine, when Model immigrated to the United States in 1938. Over the next forty-five years, she made a name for herself in New York City as a distinctive artist and influential teacher, most famously to Diane Arbus.


Lisette Model, Bud Powell, New York Jazz Festival, Downing Stadium, Randall's Island (c. 1956–58), gelatin silver print, 34.9 x 27.4 cm. NGC. © Lisette Model Foundation


Still, when Ann Thomas first conceived of a Lisette Model exhibition in the early 1980s, very little research had been done on her, partly because of the artist’s deep suspicion of the written word. Model refused to allow the publication of her interviews, and purportedly savaged a manuscript by acclaimed writer Phillip Lopate. Such reticence may have been partly due to her fear of revealing certain fictions from the past. “There were little transgressions of invention and exaggeration that I think she was embarrassed by,” suggests Thomas.

After Model died in New York in 1983, her estate released a veritable treasure trove: tens of thousands of her prints and negatives, recorded interviews, personal letters, lectures, journals and much more. When her dealer Gerd Sander came to Ottawa two years later to discuss works by his grandfather, the great German photographer August Sander, he mentioned Model to Ann Thomas. The time was ripe, not only to enrich the collection with more works by Model, but also to pursue a complete examination of the artist.

Over the next few years, the Gallery purchased some thirty photographs from Sander, and Thomas began to plan a career retrospective. She wanted to show primarily vintage photographs printed by Model herself, rather than the contemporary prints that some institutions had exhibited. Darkroom manipulation was integral to Model’s artistry; for her, the negative was merely an initial sketch, after which she cropped edges and exaggerated angles. “She did all the outrageous stuff in the darkroom,” says Thomas.

Thomas also wanted to show elements of Model’s work that had not previously been shown, such as her photographs of jazz musicians and lesser-known works from the Running Legs series (1940–1941), which captures the frenzy of New York sidewalks. 

The exhibition proposal received an enthusiastic nod from New York lawyer Joseph G. Blum, Model’s executor, friend and great promoter. Blum was already in his late seventies when Model died, and anxious to see a large exhibition realized. With his promise to lend works to the exhibition, Thomas headed to New York to make her selection in the winter of 1986–1987.


Lisette Model, Running Legs, Fifth Avenue, New York (c. 1940–41, printed 1980), gelatin silver print, 49.4 x 39.4 cm. NGC. © Lisette Model Foundation

In the smelly, run-down storage locker where Blum had placed Model’s works, Thomas worked steadily through the many boxes of prints. “It was pretty primitive,” she says. “There was one lightbulb hanging from the ceiling. It was very dank, and so cold that I had to wear cut-off gloves. I was supposed to go to a reception at the Met, and my clothing smelled so musty that I couldn’t do it. And the lawyer assigned to sit with me ended up in the hospital with respiratory problems.” 

Over the many months of preparation, Thomas worked closely with Blum, convincing him that the Gallery was a better home for Lisette Model’s works than the locker. In the end, he made a most generous gift: 261 exhibition-quality prints; $100,000 (US) to establish The Lisette Model/Joseph G. Blum Fellowships in the History of Photography; and all of Model’s archival materials.

Cyndie Campbell, Head of Collections in the Gallery’s Library and Archives, says the Lisette Model fonds is an exceptional resource — and one of the institution’s most frequently consulted fonds. “The archive contains a wealth of correspondence with family, friends, and fellow photographers, including Diane Arbus, Ansel Adams, and Berenice Abbott,” she said in an interview.  

In addition to the correspondence, Model’s 25,000 negatives, her study photographs, teaching notebooks, clippings, exhibition notices, and posters all document her professional activities, while the legal documents, medical records, calendars, and address books provide further biographical details. 

“Sometimes with archives only bits and pieces remain,” added Campbell, “because the person or their family didn’t think these items would be of interest to others. But with Model, we are fortunate because so much has been preserved.”

Lisette Model has a significant presence at the National Gallery. The three hundred photographs held here represent the world’s most important collection of Model’s work. The 1990 retrospective exhibition, which toured internationally, was critically acclaimed and the accompanying catalogue won the George Wittenborn Memorial Book Award. Over twenty recipients of the Lisette Model/Joseph G. Fellowships have conducted important research at the Gallery. And a special online showcase devoted to Model presents hundreds of wonderful images, recorded interviews, and other documents.

The legacy of Lisette Model carries on. It’s not over when her fat lady sings.

Share this article: 

About the Author