Lisette Model (1901–1983) did not take that many photographs, but she had the most essential talent of a great photographer: the ability to create images that are memorable and, that, having once been seen, are not easily forgotten. Another talent she had, one not visible in her works, was the ability to mentor younger photographers to greater achievement. "Lisette Model & Her Successors," currently at the Aperture Gallery, celebrates both of these talents. There are 22 of her own pictures in the center space of the gallery, surrounded by panels with over 10 dozen pictures by 13 students to whom she was teacher, friend, and goad.
Model came to America in 1938 from the cauldron of pre-war Europe. She was born Elise Felic Amelie Seybert in Vienna, the daughter of an Austrian-Italian-Jewish doctor and a French Catholic mother. She was musical and studied piano with Arnold Schönberg. Photography was not an interest until the mid-1930s, by which time she had moved to Paris: her sister Olga taught her the basic darkroom techniques, and Rogi Andre, André Kertész's first wife, taught her camera techniques. She married the Russian Jewish painter Evsa Model in 1937, and the two left Paris for New York the next year. She liked New York, and became a member ofthatvital mid-centuryNew York institution, the Photo League. The League gave Model her first exhibition, and Alexey Brodovitch, the adventurous art director of Harper's Bazaar, gave her assignments. In 1951, probably with the intercession of her good friend Berenice Abbott, she was invited to teach photography at the New School for Social Research.
The style for which she is famous seems to have come to Model spontaneously, and was already present in her first pictures, the portraits she took while on vacation in Nice in 1934 of loungers on the Promenade des Anglais. Model was very sophisticated and always aware of contemporaneous cultural and artistic currents, so her eye may have been influenced by the caricatures of George Grosz and Otto Dix, the tradition of German grotesquerie of which they are a part, and by German Expressionism. Her subjects are frequently distressing, sometimes repellent, and always seen closeup. The sense of confrontational appropinquity was often achieved by radically cropping her negatives, but the effect is the same as if they were actually shot as close to the subject as they appear; we are put in the presence of people with whom we would ordinarily just as soon not socialize.
It is relatively easy to learn how to manipulate a film camera; it is difficult to learn what to shoot and how to shoot it. Similarly, basic darkroom procedures are pretty straightforward; what takes talent is knowing what effect you want the final print of a given negative to achieve so you can work towards it. Model was a very good teacher of these things if her students — the "successors" in the exhibition's title — are the criterion: 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. And, of course, there are many other fine photographers who benefited from studying with Model, but who are not in this exhibition.
It was not Model's practice to show her own photographs to her students or to hold them up as exempla to be imitated. She knew that finding their own style was key to her students' success, and sought to help them find it. But you cannot look at the work of the 13 "successors" without seeing the influence of the master, first of all in the selection of subject matter. Bruce Crately's "Self in Hat Reflected in Holiday Window, New York" (1987) must surely have been suggested by the series of photographs Model took of midtown Manhattan streets reflected in shop windows, and his "Foot and Shadow, Metropolitan Museum (For Lisette)" (1976) acknowledges in its title his debt to her eccentric series of the legs and shoes of sidewalk passersby shot with the camera at ground level. Larry Fink's tight shot of "Sarah Vaughan, New York City" (November, 1988) is slightly out of focus and blurred, but it catches the singer's performing presence as Model's "Horace Silver, Newport Jazz Festival" (between 1954 and 1957) catches that of the pianist. And Mr. Fink's many pictures of well-heeled sleaze, such as "Vanity Fair Party, Hollywood, CA" (March, 2000) pick up on the social acuity of his mentor's famous "French Gambler, Promenade des Anglais, Riviera" (1937). Peter Hujar is easily identified as a student of Lisette Model's because he gets up close to his subjects, his compositions are simple, and he strives for psychological profundity. His moving "Sidney Faulkner Dying" (1981) is a profile of a friend with terminal AIDS, and puts one in mind of Model's "Billie Holiday, New York" (1959), her portrait of the great jazz singer in her coffin, beautiful as always, but at peace at last.
There are three pictures by Diane Arbus, Model's best-known protégé, at Aperture. Like Hujar's work, they are up-close, simple, and penetrating. Arbus and Model had an extraordinarily intimate relationship;theyspentlonghours together with Model critiquing the younger woman's work, encouraging her, and finally seeing her student's fame exceed her own.
By the time Arbus came to her in 1957, Model had stopped printing photographs. She still took pictures occasionally, but never did anything with the negatives, so we do not know which images she would have selected or how she would have handled them. Her career as a practicing photographer was over, but she continued teaching until her death in 1983. The Aperture exhibition makes clear that there is still much a person can learn from her.
Until November 1 (547 W. 27th St., between Tenth and Eleventh avenues, fourth floor, 212-505-5555).