When writing about the work of Lisette Model, fellow-photographer Berenice Abbott noted that Model’s subjects were “direct targets of an artist’s vision.” The imperative word in this compliment is target, implying, perhaps, that Model’s camera was the arrow, and her eye the quiver, both searching to strike the bull’s-eye in each person that appeared in front of her lens.
That sense of a photographer pouncing on a subject and exposing his or her more unflattering qualities is certainly there in the Boca Raton Museum of Art’s 71-piece retrospective of Model’s work that opened this week. Through the simple act of presenting people as they are, un-retouched, her images convey every wrinkle and worry line, every wattle and double-chin. She shot people with their mouths agape, forkfuls of food soon to be consumed, and in a narcotized stupor after a night of heavy partying, messily slumped in the arms of their spouses.
This candidness in Model’s photography—a kind of honesty bordering on cruelty—is a trait she shared with her most famous pupil, Diane Arbus. Like Arbus, Model was drawn to the seedier and more transgressive corners of metropolitan life, in Model’s case flea circuses, drag clubs and the beaches of Coney Island. But if this exhibition is any indication, Model’s worldview was more generous than Arbus’. She didn’t forge her reputation just on the unsparing freak show but on a spectrum of life, photographed without judgment and with infinite curiosity. More than one artist’s vision, the Boca Museum exhibition is a postcard of the fashion and the culture, and poverty and inequality, of the zeitgeist during her working life, which in this case is the mid-‘30s to the mid-‘50s.
Model’s biography is scant and full of self-spun confabulations, and she rarely provided interviews to the press. Born Elise Amelie Felicie Stern in Vienna in 1901, Model moved to Paris in 1924, and began her fledgling photography pursuit in Nice circa 1934. She emigrated to Manhattan in 1937, where her work flourished, earning her credits in Harper’s Bazaar and a spot on the roster of the influential New York Photo League.
The Boca Museum’s exhibit includes selections from her work in Nice, Paris and New York. Whether a jazz club or a drag show, or the Lower East Side or the Promenade des Anglais, her approach was consistent, her gaze confident. She was attracted to lonely, weary, displaced people—the homeless, the disabled, the disenfranchised. “Flower Vendor,” from 1933, is a devastating spirit-of-the-times image of the title businessman on a vacant street corner, his body hunched over at a resigned 45-degree angle.
Model was drawn to bodies in similar positions—slumped in chairs, leaning on walls, their bodies contorted. Whether this dishevelment is the result of extreme leisure or extreme penury is one of the questions that binds her subjects. She also liked the teasing mystery of photographing seemingly important people from behind, like the portly backside of “Circus Man” and the flowing black frock of “Famous Gambler, French Riviera,” at rest beside his or her walking stick. Which brings us to props: Canes, umbrellas, pipes and handbags function like material appendages in many of these photographs, and I think Model appreciated their extensions of character as much as what they contributed to the architecture of her images.
Indeed, these images reveal a great deal of compositional forethought beyond the point-and-shoot, lightning-in-a-bottle immediacy of much street photography. Her “Reflections” series, shot through glass storefront windows in New York City, plays marvelously with perspective and chiaroscuro lighting. Her “Running Legs” series captures close-ups of disembodied legs moving with a purpose, and the photos have a tactile quality: You can practically hear the clops and scuffs of shoes on pavement, and smell the city aroma and hear the car horns honking behind the swiftly moving pedestrians. It’s as close to a motion picture as you can get with still photography.
As great as Diane Arbus was, her work was never this sensorial or enigmatic. It’s clear, after enjoying this exhibition, why Model was the teacher, and why Arbus was the model.
“Lisette Model: Photographs From the Canadian Photography Institute of the National Gallery of Canada” runs through Oct. 21 at Boca Raton Museum of Art, 501 Plaza Real, Boca Raton. Admission is $10 seniors, $12 adults and free for students. Call 561/392-2500 or visit bocamuseum.org.