Closeness of Eye and Camera-vision: Lisette Model as a Teacher
Photographer Lisette Model dedicated her career to capturing the extraordinary. Her images show a fascination with human psychology and the multiplicity of human experience. Her subjects ranged from the French bourgeois class to modern dancers such as Pearl Primus and Valeska Gert, from Jazz and Blues musicians and performers at American nightclubs and cabarets, to the frenzy of New York City. Model believed in being open and observant of the world. As a result, she lived and photographed intuitively, as former Senior Curator of Photographs Ann Thomas has pointed out. As a photography instructor from 1949 until her death in 1983, Model’s passion for the medium and her personal philosophical convictions translated into her teaching. Greatly inspired by her, many of Model's students would become key figures in the development of contemporary photography.
Lisette Model was born Elise Stern (changed to Seybert in 1903) in Vienna, Austria, in 1901. She originally studied compositional theory and violin, switching at age 19 to piano under the tutelage of composer and theorist Arnold Schoenberg. Following the death of her father in 1924, she moved with her mother and sister Olga to France, where she continued her music studies. In 1933, however, in search of a new form of creative expression and under the instruction of Olga and photographers Florence Henri and Rogi André, Model took up photography. Just as music had once consumed her life, so too did photography and she became dedicated to using the camera to question the world around her. This intensity would later infect Model’s photography students, instilling in them a lifelong devotion to her teachings.
In 1934, Model photographed along the famous Promenade des Anglais in Nice. This series of photographs illustrates the beginning of her fascination with experimenting with proportion, composition and cropping to investigate human peculiarities. While living in France, Model met Russian-Jewish painter Evsa Model, whom she married in 1937. Amid the escalating threat of another war, the couple relocated to New York City in October 1938.
During Model’s early years in New York, her investigations into time and the photographic image evolved. Her photographs documented observable and frantic pedestrian movement around the city, as well as window displays, reflections, buildings, and dramatic interplays between light and shadow. She also began defying conventional methods of perspective in photography, approaching subjects from unusual angles – as seen in her series Reflections and Running Legs.
Between 1940 and 1947, many of Model’s series, such as Sammy’s and Nick’s, were published in Harper’s Bazaar under art director Alexey Brodovitch. The Museum of Modern Art began collecting her work in 1940, followed by the National Gallery of Canada, which is home to 297 of her photographs, making it the most significant collection of her work in the world. The artist’s own archive – containing approximately 25,000 of her negatives, correspondence, teaching notebooks and resources, interviews, contact sheets and duplicate prints – is housed in the Gallery's Library and Archives. This archival material offers a detailed and invaluable overview of Model’s biography and career, as well as glimpses into her methods as a teacher.
Around 1945, Evsa began teaching painting and visual theory classes at the couple’s apartment to generate additional income. Model attended his classes and, in 1951, she initiated her own private photography classes. Concurrently, she began teaching at the New School (originally the Free School of Political Science), which had been established in 1919 by several former Columbia University professors, who believed that knowledge and education should be accessible to all regardless of social class. Model taught alongside Berenice Abbott and other photographers, including Minor White and Brodovitch. Model’s courses included “The Function of the Small Camera in Photography Today,” “The Eye and The Camera” and “Photography Advanced.” While at the school, Model and White became friends, united by their shared interest in the psychoanalytical interpretation of photographs. Unlike White, however, who taught using examples of his own work, Model used the work of other photographers she admired, such as August Sander, in her courses. Although she believed one could not speak objectively about one's own photographs, she also maintained that the artwork of others should be admired but not copied.
Inspired by the teaching philosophy of Schoenberg, Model strove to cultivate in her students a capacity for critique, “where they would openly be able to evaluate one another’s work in class,” according to Thomas. She further encouraged her students to develop a unique style, instructing them to seek out subject matter about which they were passionate. As she writes in one of her teaching notebooks, there should be “no rules, no preconceived ideas, no applied formulas” in photography. Model’s students included Diane Arbus, Larry Fink, Bruce Cratsley, Todd Webb, Bruce Weber, Eva Rubinstein, Peter Hujar and Rosalind Fox Solomon. They greatly admired her and most maintained contact after their tutelage. Their correspondence provides significant insight into the profound influence Model had on her students.
Many of her students became successful photographers, their work widely exhibited and published. Although their works show visual disparity, their approaches are united by elements of dynamic light and shadow, unusual proportions and perspectives, and acute attention to the human psyche and interaction – all components of Model’s work. Photographs of Diane Arbus, for example, reflect Model’s interest in the construction of personae and its antithesis, the unconscious revelation of true self. As such, Arbus' photographs show a simultaneous sense of disillusionment with the American dream and a celebration of those who stand outside it. As in Model’s work, the spontaneous intimacy in Arbus' photographs fuels a vision of a photographer who boldly approached her subjects but did not extensively engage with them. In actuality, she spent time immersing herself in the environments and lives of those she documented (as did Model to some degree).
Model’s penchant for the inquisitive – provoking more questions than answers – is evident in the photography of Larry Fink. His theatrical composition of images that speak to the revelation of human relationships through gesture is a recurring element, as seen in English Speaking Union, N.Y.C. The woman’s glassy gaze raises a number of queries regarding the nature of the dancing couple’s relationship: is this a look of relief at a reunion or a teary-eyed last dance? Or is the woman detached from the present, experiencing another moment altogether, a cherished memory of perhaps another person?
Rosalind Fox Solomon’s images are similarly focused on how humans relate to one another and their environments, while also exploring the tension between struggle and survival. Inspired by Model’s teaching, Fox Solomon’s search for the unexpected led her to explore America and abroad, producing renowned series in Latin America and India. In a letter from New Delhi, dated 5 December 1982, she writes “I can’t wait to have work to show you from this odyssey,” adding that “Every day something new and exciting revealed itself to me.”
In Foot and Shadow, Metropolitan Museum (for Lisette), Bruce Cratsley, who was at the New School in the 1970s, directly references his teacher's Running Legs series. In this work, however, there is a bleak undercurrent, communicated by the intense, almost crushing struggle between light and shadow, with shadow threatening to gain the upper hand.
The photographs of these Model students and admirers would in turn influence a newer generation of photographers, including Nan Goldin and Judith Joy Ross. Even photographers who had not studied with Model were nonetheless influenced by her photographic style. The physicality prevalent in her work appears also in Ruth Kaplan’s Bathers series, as the expression of selfhood through the body’s gestures. This series, taken in communal hot springs and bathhouses across Europe and America, reveals the paradoxical experience of bathing, in which people appear vulnerable but authentically themselves.
Model continued teaching photography until her death on 30 March 1983. Her legacy would be twofold: her students continued to reshape the contemporary photography scene in America and Canada well into the 21st century, and her photographic work and ethos remain compelling sources of inspiration for both aspiring and established photographers.
Works by Lisette Model, Bruce Cratsley, Larry Fink, Ruth Kaplan and Rosalind Solomon are on view in Closeness of Eye and Camera-vision: Lisette Model as Teacher, a small display combining archival materials from the Lisette Model archive alongside prints from the Gallery’s collection, at the National Gallery of Canada’s Library and Archives. Share this article and subscribe to our newsletters to stay up-to-date on the latest articles, Gallery exhibitions, news and events, and to learn more about art in Canada.