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Lisette Model (1901-1983)

Introduction & Biographical Essay | Resources

Introduction & Biographical Essay


Cornell Capa with Lisette Model.
Cornell Capa with Lisette Model,
between 1975 and 1979.
Dianora Niccolini, photographer.

The world remembers Lisette Model for her large, unsparing portraits. Careful framing and cropping but no retouching for her. Now we live in a world of Photoshop. If the world doesn't look the way you want it to be, fix it. For Model, the world was what it was. She held her camera up to it and in large black-and-white pictures, showed it to itself.

Her students remember her as a great teacher, when she traded her camera for a podium. Her most famous student was Diane Arbus, and in Model's frank, unsparing, often confrontational portraits, you can see some of Model's bold honesty. A generous collection of Model's work is in Canada, but the Library of Congress holds a fine sampling of her photographic prints.

Early Life

Lisette Model was born Elise Amelie Felicie Stern on Nov. 10, 1901, in Vienna, Austria. Her father, Victor, was Austrian-Italian and Jewish; her mother, Felicie, was French and Catholic. Lisette was raised Catholic but before she was two years old, the family changed its name to from Stern to Seybert because of increasing anti-Semitism.1

Model's first love was music. As Elise Seybert, she studied with Arnold Schoenberg, father of her childhood friend Gertrude "Trudi" Schoenberg. 2 Of him, she once said: "If ever in my life I had one teacher and one great influence, it was Schoenberg."3 (Everything she said must be verified. Her camera spoke frankly, but Model felt free to edit her life. An example: she was not born in 1906, as many biographies say, but in 1901. She granted interviews, then withdrew permission to publish the article or denied ever saying anything.)4

Model eventually abandoned music, but not her avant-garde ways. Seeking a form of self-expression, she turned to singing. In 1926, she left Vienna, moved to Paris and studied voice with soprano Marya Freund.5 (Freund, incidentally, performed in two of Schoenberg's works, including the famous Pierrot Lunaire, which played in the background during an exhibition of Model's works at the Bruce Silverstein Gallery in 2011.)

Developing a Style

Abandoning her voice training abruptly, Model turned briefly to painting. She was taught by André Lhote, whose students included Henri Cartier-Bresson.6 In 1933, Model visited her younger sister Olga in Nice where she learned the rudiments of photography, likely from Olga who had become fascinated with it in the 1920s. Model may have taken up photography "at the suggestion of a friend who pointed out that with the rise of Hitler, it might be useful to have an itinerant profession."7 Photographer Rogi André advanced Model's education, teaching her how to use a Rolleiflex camera. Model's idols were Rogi André, who was Kertesz's first wife (also known as Elizabeth), Florence Henri, and Alexey Brodovitch.

In the summer of 1934, while visiting her mother in Nice, Model took her camera to one of the city's fashionable thoroughfares, the Promenade des Anglais, where she took a series of portraits that remain among her most-seen works. Known as the "Riviera" series, they were published in 1935 in the Communist magazine Regards.8

Photograph shows an obese woman sitting on a bench in Nice, France.
Woman in Flowered Dress, Promenade des Anglais,
Rivieria, between 1934 and 1937.
Lisette Model, photographer.
Photograph shows a dapper man slumped in a chair in Nice, France.
French Gambler, Promenade des Anglais,
Rivieria, 1937.
Lisette Model, photographer.

Like the German Expressionists, Model's interest was in people: their bodies, their faces, their clothing.9 Such matters interested her more than their surroundings. That is seen in her portraits on Promenade des Anglais as well as in her later work.

Model's portraits were often full figure. An examination of the negatives reveals that the printed photographs were tightly cropped to focus on the person and eliminate surrounding detail. 10 In the Silverstein Gallery monograph Self Reflections: The Expressionist Origins of Lisette Model, Monika Faber discusses Model's negatives, pointing out that they "include a significant portion of the setting surrounding her figures." Model may have maintained a respectful distance when she took her pictures; the surroundings suggest that, but her prints do not.

Though the images were straightforward in appearance, as a group they seemed mocking in tone: the idle rich, sunning themselves at the Côte d'Azur. The portraits seemed especially critical when they were first published in Regards. The same photographs were published in the newspaper PM in 1941 after Model had moved to America but without opinionated prose, the pictures seem documentary in nature.11 Back in Paris, Model resumed her series of brutal close-ups, training her focus on the poor.

Professional Activities

Reflection of mannequins and displays in window of women's clothing store, New York City.
Reflection, Fifth Avenue, 1950.
Lisette Model, photographer.

In about 1935 Lisette met Evsa Model, a Jewish Russian Constructivist painter. Two years later, she married him in Paris.12 In 1938, they emigrated to the United States, and Model fell in love with the fast pace of New York City. One series of photographs -- Reflections -- captures the multi-dimensionality of the city, as reflected in shop windows, often along fabled Fifth Avenue.

Another series -- Running Legs -- caught the almost-insane pace of the city and the nation. So many people, going somewhere fast. But where? For what purpose? The photographs capture only the movement, not the intent. The pictures are heady and seemingly meaningless. They are also reminiscent of the famous Gauguin painting Where Do We Come From? What Are We? Where Are We Going?

One area of New York that especially intrigued her was the Lower East Side. From 1942 through 1945 she made hundreds of pictures there. These people, much more than those on Fifth Avenue, she knew and understood. Denizens of the Lower East Side were like the people she knew in Europe. Photographs she made of them, unlike the two previous series, are reminiscent of the pictures she made in Nice. She seemed at home in the New World. At an open-air patriotic rally in downtown New York, she made a picture series for LOOK Magazine titled "Their Boys are Fighting," which showed ordinary Americans "of diverse origins, but their faces show the pride and pain that fill America's gear."13

Man looking at his reflection in window, New York City.
Lower East Side, between 1939 and 1945.
Lisette Model, photographer.
Legs of man running on street.
Running Legs, 1940 or 1941.
Lisette Model, photographer.

Another place Model seemed at home was Coney Island, where she went at the suggestion of Brodovitch. Its bathing area was reminiscent of the Promenade des Anglais in Nice. She took one of her most famous pictures there: "Coney Island Bather." It is a portrait of a very large woman with her hands on her knees. Today the woman would be considered obese. But there is no ridicule in the picture -- in fact Model took more than one. Another image shows her lounging on the sand, enjoying herself. Model's pictures capture the woman's joy. Model's photos were published in Harper's Bazaar, Cue,14 and PM.

The Teacher

Photograph shows an obese woman in a bathing suit squatting on the beach at Coney Island, Brooklyn, New York.
Woman at Coney Island, New York, between 1939 and 1941.
Lisette Model, photographer.

Model struggled financially much of her life. One difficulty was that she lived in the McCarthy Era when the House Un-American Activities Committee searched for Communists and was suspicious of the Photo League, a New York organization devoted to photography and social concerns. Model had her first one-person exhibit there in 1941 and has been mentioned in the exhibition and book, The Radical Camera, as one of the photographers, along with Sid Grossman, who were "key" members of the Photo League.

Later in the decade, the FBI classified the organization as a communist-front operation, making it more difficult for Model to sell her pictures. In 1954, Model was interviewed by the FBI. She neither admitted to being a card-carrying member of the Communist Party, nor named names. The FBI tried to recruit her as an informer but she refused. Her name was placed on the National Security list. As a result, her opportunities to work suffered because being on the list made potential clients reluctant to hire her. But it is unclear whether her loss of work was due to the FBI interview or to the changing needs of magazines.15

Later in life Model turned to teaching, and, to her surprise, discovered she was not only good at it but enjoyed it as well. Her students included Larry Fink, Naomi Rosenblum, and Arbus. One of Arbus's more famous pictures, "Boy with a straw hat waiting to march in a pro-war parade, N.Y.C. 1967" shows him holding a small American flag and seems to suggest one of Model's pictures, "War Rally," taken at least 20 years earlier. Model also offered private classes at her home. But she is best remembered for her work at the New School for Social Research (a position aided by her friend Berenice Abbott) and where she taught for the remainder of her life.

Final Years

Model didn't abandon taking photographs; she abandoned printing them. Hundreds of negatives were in her estate after her death. Why they remained unprinted has not been answered conclusively, though theories have been advanced. One is a declining self-confidence. Another is the amount of energy she applied to teaching. A third is her precarious financial situation.

In the last decade of her life she continued to take pictures: of "hippies" in San Francisco, of old people in a nursing home, self-portraits and pictures of Evsa. Most of these photographs remained unprinted. On March 30, 1983, she died at New York Hospital.


Lisette Model's large, closely-cropped pictures brought us close to the people she wanted us to see. She understood the world by seeing people, and how they saw the world. She worked in the tradition of Eastern European photographers and helped introduce their style to the relatively new photo magazines in the United States in the early 1940s.

Model's pictures, like her classroom experience, teach us. She didn't teach us how to see. But she forced us to look closely at people. Her choices in cropping the negatives and the size of her prints reinforced that. Her journalism reveals that our experience unites us.

Her influence lives on through the people to whom she taught photography in the 1950s through the 1970s. Some became well known. Arbus was one; others are Larry Fink and Lynn Davis. Still others are less well known but their works are insightful. Model' signature images continue to be reproduced and exhibited because they speak to people about something timeless in urban life.


1Ann Thomas, Lisette Model. (Ottawa: National Gallery of Canada, 1990), 29; "Lisette Model," Vienna's Shooting Girls. (Vienna: Jewish Museum, 2012), 204.

2Thomas, Lisette Model, 36; Colin Westerbeck and Joel Meyerowitz. Bystander: A History of Street Photography. (Boston: Little, Brown, 2001), 331.

3Self Reflections: The Expressionist Origins of Lisette Model. External link

4Thomas, 15-16.

5 Freund lived in Paris for 30 years where she was also a teacher.

6Thomas 42.

7Westerbeck, Bystanders, 331.

8Regards was a French photojournalism publication, 1932-1962, 1995-.

9Self Reflections: The Expressionist Origins of Lisette Model. External link

10Ann Thomas, "Production and Context: Lisette Model and the McCarthy Years," in Sam Stourdzé and Ann Thomas. Lisette Model. (Paris: Editions Léo Scheer, 2002), 173.

11PM was a 1940s New York City left-wing daily newspaper.

12Thomas, 56.

13Lisette Model, photographs, and Carl Sandberg, blank-verse text, "Their Boys Are Fighting," Look 6, no. 23 (Nov. 17, 1942): 68-73.

14Cue, begun in 1932, was a guide to the arts and entertainment in New York that flourished in the 1940s-60s.

15Thomas, "Production and Context: Lisette Model and the McCarthy Years," in Sam Stourdzé and Ann Thomas. Lisette Model. (Paris: L. Scheer, 2002), 173-184.

Prepared by: Beverly W. Brannan, Curator of Photography, Prints & Photographs Division, 2014. Last revised: 2015.

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