Lisette Model - Biography and Legacy
Austrian-American Photographer and Instructor
New York City, USA
Biography of Lisette Model
Lisette Model was born Elise Amelie Felicie Stern in Vienna. Her Jewish father Victor Hypolite Josef Calas Stern was a wealthy Italian-Austrian doctor, and her Catholic mother François Antoinette Félicité Picus was from Savoy, France. In response to the growing anti-semitism in Europe at the time, Elise's father changed the family name from Stern to Seybert. Elise and her siblings, Salvatòr and Olga, were baptized in the Christian faith. The Seybert family lived in a fairy-tale mansion in a noble area of the city, but Elise was a reclusive child in comparison to the youngest of her three siblings, Olga, who was the most beautiful and smartest.
Elise was an intensely private person, who was reluctant to speak about her personal life in interviews. This is maybe due to her unhappy childhood and her father's abusive treatment - which might have led her to freely edit her life story. Throughout her childhood and adolescence, Elise learned to speak and read French, Italian, and German, and showed little interest in the visual arts. She was passionate about classical music, practicing with private tutors almost daily.
With the outbreak of WWI, Austria experienced an economic stagnation that impacted the Model family's luxurious lifestyle. They had to adapt to a slightly more modest one, obligating the family to lay off maids and tutors.
Elise continued her studies of music with Arnold Schoenberg, an experimental musician and composer, known for introducing 12-tone, atonal music. Schoenberg, the father of her childhood friend Gertrude, exposed Elise not only to avant-garde music, but also introduced to her to his many Expressionist artist-friends and their work. He was so connected that he even had his portrait made by Egon Schiele.
A few years following her father's death in 1924, Elise moved to Paris in search of an exciting hub of artistic activity. Postwar Austria had lost its splendor, 60% of its territory, as well as economic and political viability. Although Elise studied voice with Polish soprano Mayra Freund until 1933, she abruptly abandoned her voice studies and switched focus to the visual arts. Elise shifted her interests to painting first, and then photography. Her early drawings, however, already show her interest in the human figure and in people's character.
She discovered and learned about photography from her sister Olga, who was a professional photographer, and Rogi André, Andre Kertész's wife. André further educated Elise in photography and mentored her to "never photograph anything that you are not passionately interested in." Elise then decided to become a full-time photographer and served as an apprentice with the Bauhaus-trained photographer Florence Henri in 1937.
Elise married the Jewish Russian Constructivist painter Evsei Konsantinovich Model, known as Evsa Model, in Paris in 1937. They probably met in Nice in 1934, when she was photographing her well known series of the bourgeoisie enjoying the summer at the Promenade des Anglais. With the increasing rise of fascism in Europe, the Models fled in 1938 to New York, where Evsa Model's sister lived. His sister acted as their Visa sponsor.
Lisette Model fell in love with New York City at first sight: "when we put our feet on Riverside Drive, we felt in love in a split second.. the beauty of the highways, the poetry of the skyscrapers." Her early New York photographs are a homage to the city's fast-pace and to its embrace of new immigrants. Yet, it was her series of the Promenade des Anglais in Nice, which garnered her great success and drew the attention of the New York photographic community, including Ralph Steiner, Edward Steichen, Ansel Adams, Beaumont Newhall, Berenice Abbott, and Paul Strand. Through these connections, she met the Art Director Alexey Brodovitch, who hired her to work for Harper's Bazaar, which was a crucial forum for the latest trends in American photography. This job became her main source of income for many years, in addition to her work for the illustrated magazines Cue, PM Weekly, Look, and Ladies Home Journal. This job also lent her work visibility, resulting in its inclusion in the 1940 inaugural exhibition of the Museum of Modern Art's Department of photography, "Sixty Photographs: A Survey of Camera Aesthetics." In May the following year, Lisette had her first solo exhibition as a member of the prestigious Photo League, a photographer's cooperative and educational society dedicated to social reform.
Because Evsa Model received an invitation to teach painting in California, the couple moved West in the late 1940s. While there, Lisette became friends with photographers linked to the f/64 group, such as Ansel Adams and Imogen Cunningham. Even though these West Coast photographers were famous for their pristine technique and over-the-top print quality, attributes Lisette's work lacked, they admired her visceral approach towards the medium. At the time, Lisette also taught photography at the San Francisco Institute of Fine Arts.
Around this time, Lisette received the news that her brother had presumably died in a concentration camp in Austria. Thankfully, her sister Olga emigrated to Venezuela and Lisette visited her in 1953.
The 1950s were not very generous to the Models. Besides their financial struggles, Lisette left many of her projects incomplete - one of which was a photo book about Jazz. To secure a livelihood, she accepted the invitation to teach at the New School for Social Research, a progressive institution that included among its faculty, such artists as John Cage and Berenice Abbott. Lisette took easily to teaching, which became her priority, even offering private lessons at her apartment. Her own photographic work did not suffer much because of her teaching load. Rather it could have been her name's inclusion on the FBI's National Security list or even the changing needs of magazines, which curtailed her offers for work at this time.
Lisette was suspected of being a communist, as a member of the Photo League, which Senator Joseph McCarthy's House Un-American Committee classified as a communist organization. As a result, the FBI investigated and interviewed Lisette in 1954; she neither admitted to being a card-carrying member of the communist party, nor did she name names.
Finally in 1965, Lisette received the Guggenheim fellowship that eluded her over the years. She became quite interested in photographing elderly people, possibly due to a sense of self-identification. She would never abandon taking photographs throughout her life; she just discontinued printing them. By the mid 1970s, she had lost most of her friends, and in 1976, her life-long partner, Evsa died. As a result of these losses, she became reclusive, yet she never stopped teaching, giving lectures days prior to her own death from natural causes.
The Legacy of Lisette Model
As a professor of photography, Model generously passed on her knowledge and passion for photography. Diane Arbus, one of her most famous students, was highly influenced by Model's risk taking and choice of subject matter. According to Arbus' ex-husband, Allan Arbus, "three sessions [with Model] and Diane was a photographer." Charles Pratt, Eva Rubinstein, Peter Hujar, and John Gossage also benefitted from Model's tutelage.
As a photographer, her unapologetic framing and cropping of the negative taught us to look closely at people. Her photographic techniques paved the way for contemporary photographers' unorthodox amending of the original material to create insightful pictures about how we see the world. Her interest in the ambiguity generated by images reflected on shop windows, later informed the work of street photographers, such as Lee Friedlander. Moreover, "Model brought a frank subjectivity and expression of strong passions to a medium conventionally noted for its mechanical and seemingly neutral capacity to record information," according to the photo-historian Ann Thomas. Model's "fearless eye" - the keen sense of observation and value of everyday eccentricity and ethnic diversity - pushed against the grain of mainstream American culture, which increasingly moved toward a homogenized consumer-driven society.