Lisette Model

Newspaper salesman, Paris

1933–8, printed 1976

In Tate Britain

Prints and Drawings Room

View by appointment
Lisette Model 1901–1983
Photograph, gelatin silver print on paper
Image: 495 × 400 mm
Purchased with funds provided by the Photography Acquisitions Committee 2010


This is one of a portfolio of twelve black and white photographs that were taken by Model in the 1930s and 1940s and printed in 1976 (Tate P79965P79976). The photographs were printed in an edition of twenty-five in New York by master printers Gerd Sander and Richard Benson, under Model’s close supervision. They were selected by Model to form a coherent group representative of her early practice which includes shots taken in America, France and Monaco. One of Model’s best-known images, of a female bather in the sea at Coney Island of 1939–41, is included in the portfolio. It also features the 1945 photograph Window reflections, Fifth Avenue, New York City, which relates to a series of photographs Model made of reflections and the legs of passers-by shot among the crowded streets of New York.

Model’s photographs of the late 1930s and early 1940s are mostly close-up shots of people encountered on the streets of Paris, New York or the French Riviera. In 1937 Model took her camera out to the Promenade des Anglais during a trip to Nice and photographed the privileged classes at leisure. Her ‘portraits’ were sometimes taken without the viewer’s awareness or permission; at other times, although aware, her subjects seem not to care about the presence of the photographer, as for example in many of her pictures of old or homeless people on the streets of New York.

Model’s photographs often force the viewer to look into the faces of people who might otherwise be seemingly invisible and unnoticed, revealing the true character of those who are forced by circumstance to keep up appearances. Model said of her work: ‘I have often been asked what I want to prove with my photographs. The answer is I don’t want to prove anything. The camera is an instrument of detection. We photograph not only what we know but also what we don’t know. A moment is caught that was and never will be again – and lives on in the picture.’ (Quoted in Adam Weinberg and Marianne Wiggins, From the Heart: The Power of Photography – A Collector’s Choice, New York 1998, p.45.)

American photographer Edward Steichen, who was also Director of Photography at the Museum of Modern Art, New York between 1945 and 1962, said of Model:

Her prints record a relentless probing and searching into realities among people, their foibles, senselessness, sufferings, and on occasion their greatness. The resulting pictures are often camera equivalents of bitter tongue lashings. She strikes swift, hard and sharp, then comes to a dead stop, for her work is devoid of all extraneous devices or exaggerations.
(Quoted in Willard Detering Morgan, The Encyclopedia of Photography, vol.13, New York 1974, p.2331.)

Born in Vienna, Model moved to Paris in 1924 where she took up painting and in the mid-1930s produced her first series of photographs. In 1938 she moved to New York, where she was able to earn a living as a photographer working for Harper’s Bazaar. In the 1950s she taught at the new School for Social Research at Columbia University, where she became a colleague and long-term friend of photographer Berenice Abbott and teacher to Diane Arbus, whose photographs of people often on the margins of society reflect Model’s influence. In her later years living in New York, Model worked closely with Gerd Sander (grandson of German photographer August Sander, 1876–1964), who acted as her printer and dealer. Model preferred to display her photographs in the simplest way possible, behind a sheet of glass or Perspex with no outer frame.

Further reading
Lisette Model: A Retrospective, exhibition catalogue, New Orleans Museum of Art, New Orleans 1981.
Lisette Model, Shooting Off My Mouth, Spitting into the Mirror: A Narrative Autobiography, Göttingen 2009.
Lisette Model, exhibition catalogue, Jeu de Paume, Paris 2010.

Ann Coxon
August 2010

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