Candid but kind: the photographic world of Lisette Model
Lisette Model (1901–1983) is recognized as one of the most innovative and daring photographers of her era. So when the Boca Raton Museum of Art in Florida wanted to mount an exhibition featuring her work, the National Gallery of Canada’s Canadian Photography Institute (CPI) was the obvious go-to. “We have the largest collection of her work in the world as well as her archives,” says Ann Thomas, Acting Director of the CPI, who has been pivotal in building its collection of Model’s work from one photograph in 1968 to the 293 works today.
Model is best known for her candid but empathetic shots revealing the peculiarities of average people, marginalized members of society and luminaries such as jazz musician Louis Armstrong and fashion writer and editor Diana Vreeland. Her work regularly appeared in publications such as Harper’s Bazaar and was included in the 1940 inaugural photography exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. Once her work went public, Model inspired other photographers to challenge some of the prevailing conventions of the time. Her students included Diane Arbus and Larry Fink, “who became incredible photographers in their own right,” says Lanya Snyder, assistant curator at the Boca Raton Museum of Art. She feels Model “hasn’t quite gotten the attention she deserves. We have photos by a lot of Model’s contemporaries, but we don’t have any of her own work. She was a very important female photographer who, as a curator, I feel has been largely overlooked.”
For the Boca Raton exhibition Lisette Model, Photographs from the Canadian Photography Institute of the National Gallery of Canada, Ann Thomas selected 71 works to reflect all of the major periods in Model’s career, enabling viewers “to get a sense of her overall strengths and to be introduced to her sense of innovation, her selection of subject matter and the way she composed her subject matter.” That includes Model’s photos from the Promenade des Anglais, “one of her most exceptional bodies of work,” Thomas says. “She was photographing the people who came to winter in Nice and they would sit on this promenade. They were always very strong characters.”
Model also photographed in the parks of Paris where, Thomas notes, she became “a very anecdotal photographer. There was storytelling behind her pictures.” Model’s serial work in New York City included images at Coney Island, reflections of people in store windows and the Running Legs series. The tenements in NYC and Reno, Nevada, as well as a body of photos from Venezuela marked other key stages in Model’s development and oeuvre.
“The images are very rich in detail,” Snyder says of the exhibition. “They make you feel good because they are real people and they express the humanity in all of us. She forged a path for those other photographers to follow. People don’t realize that. It was pretty radical.” She says Model’s work also continues to resonate even in this era of modern, digital photography. “The medium of photography is shifting,” she observes. “People aren’t shooting rolls of black-and-white film. The definition of a photograph has shifted with the advent of digital photography and large-scale colour printing.” Thomas agrees that, like many other important figures in the history of photography, Model’s work remains relevant. “It has a life to it. So we have a responsibility and an obligation to keep her work in the forefront.”
Lisette Model, Photographs from the Canadian Photography Institute of the National Gallery of Canada, is on view at the Boca Raton Museum of Art, Florida, until October 21, 2018. At the National Gallery of Canada, Lisette Model’s Woman with Veil, San Francisco, of 1949 is on view in The Extended Moment: Fifty Years of Collecting Photographs, on view until September 16, 2018. To share this article, please click on the arrow at the top right hand of the page.