In the summer of 1934, a young woman named Lisette Model took a break from her life in Paris to visit her mother and sister in Nice. While there, she borrowed a 35-millimeter camera from her sister, Olga, and took it to the Promenade des Anglais, an upscale stretch along the Mediterranean seaside that was popular with a moneyed crowd. In the line of Model’s keen (or unforgiving) sight, the men and women lounging in the promenade’s comfortable chairs became so many sitting ducks.
The nascent photographer lifted the camera to her eye and captured them in a series of images that draw out the awkwardness of their well-fed, well-dressed bodies and the fascination of faces modeled by age, which appear almost grotesque, but also striking, even sculptural. “You cannot imagine how fantastically boring it can be to look hour after hour at a beautiful body,” Model once said, referring to a stint studying painting in Paris and working from live models. “But an ugly body can be fascinating.”
Shortly before she tested her photographic acuity in Nice, Model had decided to switch from pursuing a career in music to experimenting with one in photography. Her sister had become enamored with the medium, and together with her friend, Rogi André, she introduced it to Model—who quickly took to it for reasons both practical and personal.
Model had moved to Paris from her native Vienna in 1926 in order to study singing. There, on account of her own Jewish-Catholic roots and the Judaism of her husband, Russian painter Evsa Model, she faced a growing risk as the Nazis consolidated power in Europe. Unlike music, photography seemed to promise a set of broadly applicable, and, crucially, more easily transportable skills. In 1938, with anti-Semitism increasingly virulent and war looming, the Models emigrated to New York City, where they would live for the rest of their lives.
While looking for employment in her new city, Model brought her Promenade des Anglais portraits to the photo editor at a newly established, progressive newspaper called PM. He admired her work, publishing nine of the photographs and introducing her to other professionals in the field. By the early 1940s, she was working as a photographer for Harper’s Bazaar, a job she would keep until 1953. (It was no accident that her association with the publication corresponded with the tenure of art director Alexey Brodovitch, who filled its pages with the work of the most visionary photographers of the day.)
On her first assignment for Harper’s Bazaar, Model went back to the beach. This time, her image-hunting ground was not reserved for the wealthy but was, by contrast, the come-one-come-all coastline of Coney Island. There she found a corpulent woman in a black bathing suit and with a beaming expression that radiated confidence and joyfulness. Model captured this woman—who would become immortalized in her photographs as the Coney Island bather—standing in a high crouch and lying on her side with her head propped up on one arm.
The latter position recalls the voluptuous odalisques that sprang from the heated imaginations of 19th- and early-20th-century European male artists and appeared in their Orientalist paintings. Model cropped her prints to fill the frame with the bather’s form, pushing her right up against the edges and consuming the observer’s view.
The exaggerated closeness of her prints, her unusual, tilting perspectives, and her ability to pick out the most expressive characters wherever she went made Model one of the foremost street photographers of the early to mid-20th century. She shot anonymous figures on the teeming streets of Manhattan’s Lower East Side—among her favorite locations—and in dive bars, hotel lobbies, and numerous other public places. Rich and poor alike were subject to her searching eye, which loved wrinkled, disheveled, fleshy, distinct individuality. “The one I photograph is so strong there can almost never be anyone else,” she said.
Model’s photographs showed her peers—among them admirers like Ansel Adams and Berenice Abbott—the remarkable visual power of the unexpected angle, the un-beautiful body and face, and the blur and grain of the print. In 1951, she joined the faculty of The New School for Social Research, in Manhattan, where she taught the most sought-after photography course in the city for the next 30 years. The roster of students she influenced includes a who’s who of postwar and contemporary photographers, most famously Diane Arbus.
Model helped Arbus find the confidence to make the photographs she wanted to but was unsure she should: penetrating portraits of people at the fringes of society and those she encountered on the street who, like her teacher’s countless subjects, had an appeal stemming from an exuberant, and sometimes fragile, strangeness.
Model photographed until the end of her life. While she remains recognized for helping to re-shape conceptions of documentary photography in America and for her defining approach to street photography, her work has been eclipsed by that of her contemporary, Henri Cartier-Bresson, and of those born a generation later, especially Arbus, Robert Frank, Garry Winogrand, and Lee Friedlander.
Model understood that capturing images was a personal pursuit and emphasized that photographers should reveal something of themselves in their work, as she did fearlessly in her own. And like Cartier-Bresson, she laid the ground upon which so many other photographers stand.