A short break in assignment work for a quick book  review. I was in Nice at the weekend for the carnival and found a bookshop stocking the ’55’ range of Phaidon books, each being a ‘primer’ covering the career of a particular photographer. They are small and inexpensive books so I picked four photographers whose names I recognised but about whom I knew not much (aside from Model, I got the equivalent books on W. Eugene Smith, Walker Evans and Laszlo Moholy-Nagy).
The text is entirely in French, in which I am conversant but far from fluent! It took me the best part of an hour to understand the 13-page introductory essay / potted biography. So whilst each image is accompanied by an explanatory paragraph or two, I made the pragmatic decision to not translate all these but to make my own conclusions purely on the images themselves.
Subject matter and style
Serendipity struck immediately when I saw that her most famous early work was a series of images from the Promenade des Anglais in Nice in the 1930s – I was perusing pictures taken mere yards away! And the location of some of my assignment shots too.
Model’s images of Nice were however very different to the colourful, joy-filled place that I was trying to capture; it established early on her signature style of unflattering, unforgiving portraits, often cropped tight to give the subject no space, no means of visual escape. In terms of subject matter, she was attracted not to traditional notions of beauty but to vulgarity; a noticeable number of her portraits depict what could politely be described as ‘corpulent’ bodies. She seemed to seek out evidence of vulgarity and excess, particularly among the rich in the Nice series. In her other early 1930s European work she chose to shoot other types of subject on the edges of society: the old, the frail, the blind.
Once relocated to the USA, her style evolved a little – for example, her work based on reflections in shop windows, which looks like it influenced later photographers such as Saul Leiter and Vivian Maier – though her choices of subject remained: the extremes of society. She took unflinching portraits of the very poor and the very rich, and her lens treated them with equal (dis)respect. She variously depicted society’s flaws on the faces of individuals: vanity, insecurity, ignorance, excess. Her portraits of the lower working classes and the poor are sometimes surprisingly unsympathetic. She had no interest in flattering or beautifying subjects; the portraits comes across as quite aggressive, almost confrontational.
Model had a surprisingly short career as a working photographer – she seemed to spurn the notion that she knew what she was doing, and played the role of the lucky amateur – and moved onto teaching. That her most famous student was Diane Arbus is no surprise, when you look at some of Model’s 1940s portraiture, especially the transvestites and hermaphrodites of the New York alternative scene; in these you can see the foundations of what Arbus turned into her own signature subject matter, the ‘freaks’ on society’s edges.
In choosing to focus on characters that range from merely unglamorous to full-on grotesque, Model challenged accepted notions of photographic beauty. In her work I can see the same kind of photographic thinking that inspired not only Arbus but in a way, Robert Frank, especially in The Americans ; that photos don’t have to be beautiful, or of beautiful subjects, or be technically perfect, to move you. Looking at any black and white street photography that focuses on characters, it’s hard not to be reminded of Model’s style to some degree.
1. Sussman, E. 2001. Lisette Model. Paris: Phaidon
2. Frank, R. 2008. The Americans. Gottingen, Germany: Steidl