FROM JUNE 30th TO AUGUST 29th, 2008, ZABRISKIE GALLERY EXHIBITS PHOTOGRAPHS BY LISETTE MODEL.
Born Elise Felic Amélie Seybert in 1901 in Vienna, Lisette Model was molded by a variety of influences before her photographic career began in 1937. She studied with Arnold Shönberg before leaving Vienna for Paris where she pursued her musical studies further. By 1932 she had begun to paint – a discipline through which she met her husband, the painter Evsa Model. She and Evsa moved to New York in 1938 and never returned to Europe.
Lisette’s first photographic series in 1936, Promenade des Anglais, demonstrated her already-mature ability to capture the brilliant vitality of her subjects. The series captures people on the street in states of distress and repose. Recognizing her talent, Ralph Steiner arranged her first show at MoMA and published her photos in PM magazine. She had garnered the attention of Edward Steichen, who ensured her place at MoMA. She spent the 40s working for Harper’s Bazaar and much of the remainder of her life teaching at the New School for Social Research. Among her pupils were Diane Arbus, whose work bears Model’s stamp of influence. Lisette Model died in 1983 in New York.
Lisette Model’s work finds dignity not in heroicizing her subjects, but by revealing the “warts-and-all” humanity. Her pictures of the downtrodden have a virility so different from the mask-like valiance of Walker Evan’s dignified poor. Model’s subjects are not weathered, but weathering – neither broken nor triumphant, they are moving through a dirty and difficult world in the present tense. She is able to reveal a side of her subjects that they would not put forward themselves, but it is a deeply sympathetic view. When the image is comic, Model is never laughing at her subject, she is inviting us to enjoy this human moment. Sometimes that moment calls for laughter, sometimes it calls for tears. Berenice Abbott wrote of Lisette’s subjects, “Sensitivity and tenderness dominate so that the camera finger is on their very pulse.” Lisette Model is a confidant, not a documenter, aggrandizer, or exploiter. She is present among the pungent vitality of the lives she photographed. This presence allows her to access to an intimate sphere of people’s lives in public.