Lisette Model and Her Successors

Friday, September 7, 2007–Thursday, November 1, 2007

The broadest and most revealing survey of its kind, Lisette Model and Her Successors brings together for the first time a selection of vintage works by Lisette Model—one of the last century’s most significant photographers—and thirteen of her students who went on to leave their own marks on American photographic history: Diane Arbus, Bruce Cratsley, Lynn Davis, Elaine Ellman, Larry Fink, Peter Hujar, Raymond Jacobs, Ruth Kaplan, Leon Levinstein, Eva Rubinstein, Gary Schneider, Rosalind Solomon, and Bruce Weber. This exhibition has been curated by Diana Edkins, Aperture’s director of exhibitions and limited-edition photographs, and Larry Fink, photographer.

Lisette Model (1901–1983) was as elegant as she was profane—a woman whose searing images and eloquent teachings have influenced a host of photographers, including the star-studded roster featured in this exhibition. A deeply animate essence lurks in her work. Model’s early photographs from the late 1930s of rich idlers on Nice’s Promenade des Anglais clearly indicate her singular vision and unexpected ways of positioning her camera to achieve monumentality. Her edgy, indelible point of view later gave rise to a portrait of America at all social levels, from bathers at Coney Island to jazz club performers to elegant shoppers on New York’s Fifth Avenue.

Born in Vienna, Model spent nearly fifteen years in France before moving to New York in 1938. An influx of Continental artistic impulses increasingly pervaded the cultural milieu of New York in the 1940s and 1950s. Model embraced the life and values of the American artistic vanguard while remaining different—a figure, in the end, sui generis. She was associated with Harper’s Bazaar from 1941 to 1955. Her first assignment from art director Alexey Brodovitch was to photograph at Coney Island. Out of this came one of her most famous images—an enormous joyful woman in a black bathing suit, crouching forward with hands on knees, planted majestically on the sand with the surf roaring behind her. The accompanying caption read: “Coney Island Today, the Bathing Paradise of Billions—where fun is still on a gigantic scale.”

Model started teaching in 1949 and joined the faculty of the New School for Social Research, New York, in the spring of 1951. Her two courses in the first year were titled “The Function of the Small Camera in Photography Today” and “Photographing New York and its People.” She continued to teach up until her death in 1983.

Coinciding with the exhibition, and to mark the twenty-fifth anniversary of her death in 1983, Aperture is reissuing the classic 1979 monograph Lisette Model. The first book ever published on Model, it is being reissued in the original oversized trim with its distinctive design by Marvin Israel, and including an updated chronology and bibliography. The monograph contains more than fifty of Model’s greatest images, from those taken in the South of France to the sad, funny, and often eccentric inhabitants of New York’s subterranean haunts. As Model’s longtime friend Berenice Abbott said in the preface, “One of the first reactions when looking at Model’s pictures is that they make you feel good. You recognize them as real because real people express a bit of the universal humanity in all of us.”