As a young woman Lisette Model aspired to become a singer and pianist, and studied with the composer Arnold Schönberg. Although her dreams of a career in music were never realized, she acquired from Schönberg an unwavering sense of dedication to art that would ultimately find expression in her work as a photographer.
Following her younger sister’s lead, Lisette took her first photographs in France around 1933. The French photographer Rogi Andre gave Lisette her initial lessons in photography, as well as some advice which marked all her future work: “Never photograph anything you are not passionately interested in.” Clearly Model’s famous dictum “Shoot from the gut!” is owed to this brief but important friendship between the two women.
In 1937 Lisette married the Russian painter Evsa Model. The following year they moved to New York, where they were to remain for the rest of their lives. Lisette’s talents as a photographer were greeted enthusiastically by art directors such as Ralph Steiner of PM’s Weekly and Alexey Brodovitch of Harper’s Bazaar. With Brodovitch’s endorsement Lisette worked on assignment for Harper’s Bazaar from 1943 to 1955. It was during this period that she produced some of her most memorable images.
Lisette Model’s legacy goes beyond her own achievement as a photographer. From 1949 right up until her death in 1983 she shared her love of photography with countless students from around the world. Her forthright manner and uncompromising approach to her art inspired many disciples, among them Diane Arbus, Larry Fink, Rosalind Solomon, and Bruce Weber.
Almost fifty years ago, the critic Elizabeth McCausland wrote most perceptively of Model:
Here is a woman who operates almost purely by intuition. It is as if, in the camera, she had substituted her own uncovered nerves and emotions for light-sensitive gelatin emulsion; as if experience had burned itself into her retina as indelibly as the photographic image is embedded in silver particles.