Photography has suffered many brash generalizations, for example, photographs’ overestimated ability to capture reality, a mechanical reproduction of any given moment. Historically, many art critics have examined photographs and categorized them under rigid and diametrically opposed labels of “social documentary” or aesthetically elevated “art”. While a number of critics would probably acknowledge the slipperiness of such distinctions, rarely are these categories modified within the context of photographic histories, especially in the American tradition of modern photography. The temptation to apply these categories is understandable; the tradition has been erected pervasively and doggedly. However, the binary opposition between documentary and art photography is flawed, as the work of many modern photographers suggests.
Like many devoted artists, especially one influenced by the Expressionists, Lisette Model always questioned and never complied with the definitive notions of social documentary. Also, she did not experiment excessively or perfect a technical trademark to set her apart; she would not compromise anything that threatened the spontaneous emotion of her expression. Instead, her work illuminates what’s impossible to define using general, genre-based jargon such as a documentary photographer, a social reform photographer, or a modern artist. Of the three, it is probably most attractive to align her work with documentary, given that such a substantial amount of her work can easily be miscalculated simply as spontaneous portraits of interesting characters.
Furthermore, Model was troubled by associations between photography and reality. Several of Model’s technical and artistic themes provide rich and provocative insights which dispel the myth of mechanical reproduction and complicate perceptions that photographs are documents of literal fact. On the contrary, she believed photographs are abstract images, detached from the physical world, and ordered through an audience’s individual interpretations and psychological ordering of the external symbolism found everywhere in material world. Much of Model’s work dislocates impressions of photography as a single, straight-forward truth. I believe there are two themes of dislocation: The first focuses on ways Model obscures the identities of her subjects and the second showcases the incessant contradictions present in her pedagogy and her self-definition. The collective effect integrates her reluctance to confront subjects using conventional “truthful” methods and her inability to pin down her own beliefs over time.
This paper is organized into five major sections. The first section entitled “The Early Days—Photography as Art/Photography as Documentary” identifies the unique position of photography as an art form, including the controversy surrounding its worth and purpose at the turn of the twentieth century. Photography has always been scrutinized and debated: can photography function outside of documentary? Can photography become art? Lisette Model contributed to the conversation surrounding these essential questions. She was concerned with how these terms were used in relation to her work. This section also searches out very specific vocabulary and jargon used to categorize and critique art. Distinguishing common usages of words and how they relate to specific photographic techniques, theories, histories, photographers, etc . is important because these same terms will reappear in my focus. Lisette Model’s work, I contend, is impossible to define using the documentary or art arguments planted deeply in photographic histories as defined by prominent, respected art scholars and critics.
The second section is entitled “Lisette Model: The Icon of Incoherency.” The word “incoherency” refers to the lack of unity and the lack of harmony between her early work to her later work, between her personal life and her work, and concerning her overall opinions and beliefs over time in reference to photography. In other words, there is not one, single thread that connects all of her work or holds it all together. To place Model’s works onto a spectrum with one end operating as highly artistic and aesthetically experimental and the other operating as straight-forward documentary, exemplary of social realism, certainly would reveal that her work exists in multiple spaces on the spectrum.
Also, the title subtly refers to the lack of recognition Model received during her life and also after her death. The dearth of scholarly material about Model suggests that academia seems surprisingly uninterested in her. This is incoherent because her work was esteemed by major critics and institutions as extremely meaningful and vital to the development of photography : “Aside from Henri Cartier-Bresson, Lisette Model’s work was collected by MoMA more intensely than any other European photographer” (Thomas 93). A clear question arises from this fact: Why is there so little scholarship surrounding such an appreciated and seemingly visible photographer? Model’s legacy as a contributing force during the 1930s and later is hardly celebrated in publications such as text, anthologies, or academic articles. In fact, her persona, especially in written form, is generally obsolete unless connected to Diane Arbus, her most prolific student. This is unfortunate because her work is valuable.
Perhaps the lack of critical and scholarly interest in Model’s work can be tied to others’ inability to effectively categorize her work within a specific category or genres. Furthermore, perhaps it is frustrating to work with her images and to find answers within Model’s own words since they are often contradictory, vague, and/or dismissive toward the worth of questions designed to find truthful answers. Consequently, Lisette Model is more than a mascot of misunderstood work; her photography and her beliefs coexist as an incoherent formula representative of the ways documentary and art can be canonically impotent, displacing the motives and meanings in work meant to follow a less specific design. Thus this section will briefly explore the incoherency of Model’s biographical details.
The third section of the paper is entitled “Obscuring Specific Identities.” Model’s work ruptures the “truthful” identities of her subjects in ways that suggest her work is both artistic and documentary. Model was bothered by any suggestion that her photography represented a strict, pure document of reality. Even if on the surface it seems to enunciate something realistic, there are other more complicated forces at work. This section will pinpoint three ways Model’s work obscures specific identities: cropping to fragment and focus, blurring to dematerialize and create new narratives, and generating types/character profiles of people. This happens over the entire chronology of her work, not during experimental pockets or an isolated traveling excursion; the way her photography engages with identity is consistently hard to codify during the entirety of her career. We will look at photographs from the following collections: Running Legs, Reflections, and Promenade des Anglais, and Lower East Side. We will study the explicit camera techniques, both during and after what Henri Cartier-Bresson terms “the decisive moment,” providing contradictory commentary, negating notions of real in Model’s photographic narratives, and complicating the application of documentary and/or art onto her work.
Model even obscured her own identity via contradictory practices, professions, and her public persona. The fourth and final section is entitled “Contradictions in Self-Definition and Work: Arriving at a Statement.” Model’s comments, work, and teachings make it hard to nail down her beliefs concerning documentary and aestheticism. Her role as artist, professional, and teacher often pulled her beliefs, imagination, and inhibition in different directions. Also, Model believed in capturing the “real emotion” in subjects yet technically, she compromises what is real by using technical manipulations to accentuate the drama of the photograph. What she believes is hidden inside the photograph is pronounced using editing which makes her usages of “real” quite problematic.
In 1951 she engaged in a public debate with a New York Times columnist and photography guru Jacob Deschin, over the use of the word “creative” when applied to photography. In brief, the article offers an interesting perspective not only because it contradicts other interviews but because it further complicates, using similar and different vocabulary, the purpose of photography, and when/why it is used to document reality or as creative art. Lastly, Model’s definitions of her own photographic practice clearly contribute to what is so hard to define about her work and where her work fits in the grand scheme of photographic history.
Lisette Model’s work strongly exemplifies the concept that both the traits of art and documentary are insufficient to characterize photography. Furthermore, and most significant, Model’s work negates the premise that there’s such a thing as a straight-forward truth portrayed within the frame of any given photograph. A final look at a photograph from Coney Island will use Model’s own comments to define her photographic beliefs along with why she deserves more attention from scholars and others interested in photography.
The Early Days—Photography as Art/Photography as Documentary
It’s hard to imagine a time when photography was perceived as an inferior art form. Many believed a photograph paled in comparison to other traditional forms of art such as painting or sculpture. Around the turn of the twentieth century, artists and art critics alike had to reconsider their personal conceptions and definitions of art and pick sides to decide whether or not photography was allowed to rise into the realm of art or remain in the functional, uninspired category of science or the emotional, social justice driven category of documentary. The decision was controversial because it seemed like a matter of opinion instead of a matter of fact. The central point of contention, the hardest spell to break was convincing people that photographs capture more than a moment.
Beaumont Newhall is often singled-out for being the first of his generation to create so much scholarship on photography as a modern art form. He established a canon around the medium and did so with such methodical and technical passion that it’s hard to believe he received a Harvard education, a school quite conservative and seemingly allergic to Modern Art. He was a genuine fan and aggressive advocate of photography while most of his art history contemporaries opposed the notion of photography as art. A 1992 PBS special showed Newhall chuckling at the thought of Harvard owning any photographs. He explained Harvard’s lack of attention to Modern Art by exclaiming, “At Harvard, art stopped at 1900.” Regardless, he devoted his career to collecting, documenting, and exhibiting photography, most famously his 1937 “History of Photography” exhibit featuring 841 photographs from 1839 to 1937 at The Museum of Modern Art. The exhibit included diverse treatments of photography, showing evidence of technological advancement, scientific usage, documentary, and aesthetic photography. According to Focal Encyclopedia of Photography by Michael R. Peres:
[MoMA’s] selection of certain cultural objects as modern led to its embrace of photography. Newhall’s exhibition became a central force in shaping the public’s understanding of the medium’s past […] which told the story in terms of technological developments and practitioners whose photographs were particularly compelling for aesthetic merit and the revelation of events (Peres 230).
The exhibit signaled that indeed photography was a new art to occur and probably changed the collective consciousness of contemporary artists and audiences. Placing photographs physically inside the walls of a museum inevitably changed the perception of audiences formerly used to seeing photography on the pages of newspapers and tabloids, thus allowing for photographs to have alternative purposes.
Newhall identified the obstacles responsible for so much critical skepticism regarding photography’s status as art. In an article published by Parnassus, an art history journal, in 1934 entitled “Photography and the Artist,” Newhall wisely states: “From the standpoint of taste, a revolution took place; a mechanical ‘realistic’ norm was raised in the mind of the public. They have never been able to set this prejudice aside” (Newhall 24). The idea that “a camera never lies,” that a camera mechanically reproduces an exact replica of reality, constructs an undoubtedly detrimental depiction of photography, according to Newhall and others who believe that in fact a camera has an uncanny ability to shape reality in ways contrary to truthful representations or in ways that beautify, amaze, and profoundly alter one’s sense of themselves and the world. In other words, the essence of truth and the boundaries of reality became unraveled and further embedded in mystery via what was formerly one of the most fundamental sensory functions; cameras were no longer seen merely as factual information absorbers and reproducers.
In another article published in Parnassus, “Photography as a Branch of Art History,” Newhall claims that critics have a hard time studying photographs because there is less individuality in the art when compared to painting-- i.e. less of the photographer’s personal touch on the actual photograph. Because the individual cannot leave his/her mark onto the surface of the picture, it seems only to represent the external world (Newhall 86). Photographers don’t use brush strokes during the process. The entire work is imprisoned by the mechanical function of the camera shutter. The process is significantly “easier” in the sense that a photograph is created very quickly, all at once unlike a painting which is created bit by bit at the whim of constant creative discretion. The idea that photography was for those who weren’t artistic enough to paint or sculpt was pervasive and leaned on the reasoning that the medium of photography compromises what higher art forms work so hard to achieve through a painstaking process. To think backwards for a moment, a photograph gathers and manipulates what already exists but paintings and sculptures create something out of nothing. Misunderstanding the technical process was a great inhibitor to the artistic merit of photography and magnified unrealistic and imposing expectations of how art should be created.
Though from a contemporary perspective these ideas may seem oversimplified, the atmosphere at the turn of the century was dense with doubt. It was nearly impossible for the majority of art critics and others to see beyond the literal possibility of the photograph. Today, photography is well-established as an important and unique art medium but there is still murkiness between two categories which have dominated the history of photography, perhaps because they satisfied a compromise in perception. What is the difference between photography as art and photography as documentary? For the purposes of this paper a few distinctions must be made but will by no means attempt to settle any hair-splitting squabble or fine point.
As noted previously, Beaumont Newhall was a premier photographic and art historian. His Museum of Modern Art exhibit “The History of Photography” was later turned into a book, which has since gone through over five editions. According to his text and resources, it seems that there are three general stylistic features that distinguish photography as art from photography as documentary. Photography is artistic when the photographer experiments at one or more stages of the picture-taking process. Photography is artistic when it deliberately reproduces other works of art such as novels or mini-theatrical performances. Lastly, photography is artistic when it communicates with other types of art and/or vice-versa, participating in an exchange of influence. As an English critic once stated, “Hitherto photography has been principally content with representing Truth. Can its sphere not be enlarged? And may it not aspire to delineate Beauty, too? […] Produce pictures whose aim is not merely to amuse, but to instruct, purify and ennoble” (qtd. in Newhall, “History of Photography” 73). This critic positions art with beauty and documentary with truth. The following stylistic features extracted from Newhall’s historical perspective distinguish only why beauty is different from truth.
Photography is art when photographers make experimental technical choices that adjust how an audience may view a developed photograph. It seems that the most central are those which are made before the photographic moment and after, during the development stage. When a photographer chooses precisely how the picture should look to furthermore produce a somewhat specific reaction, the photograph is being used to communicate ideas beyond truthful visual representation; it is being used to communicate an idea, a concept, from the artist to the audience. For example, since the 1840s, photographers have experimented extensively with focus to create different effects. A blurry photograph stereotypically casts a soft glow across the surface and elicits a dreamy, romantic connotation. This effect was achieved by using a “large lens opening when taking a portrait of a person with wrinkled features to ‘obtain one of those soft and rather vague likenesses” (qtd. in Newhall, “History of Photography” 73). The decision, as Newhall argues, purposefully renders the image away from the idea of truth and closer to the idea of beauty. Photographers also experimented with exposure and negatives using a technique called combination printing to experiment with the color/lighting. The technique helped solve problems caused by sunlight and clouds. The precise way this technique was used is less important than the idea that it was created and perfected as a way to overcome a visual obstacle important to those who wanted to achieve artistic status by accessing and administering beauty in the form of an image. As Henry Peach Robinson says: “Any ‘dodge, trick and conjuration,’ of any kind is open to the photographer’s use so that it belongs to his art, and is not false to nature….It is his imperative duty to avoid the mean, the bare and the ugly, and to aim to elevate his subject, to avoid awkward forms, and to correct the unpicturesque” (Newhall, “History of Photography” 78). The photographer must manipulate his film from what would realistically develop in order to achieve the subjective sense of beauty behind the image itself. Even the notion of experimentation establishes that there’s an interest in making something new and more expressive than reality. Newhall thus suggests that photography is art when the photograph is representative of something more than a replica of reality and the photographer experiments with technique to communicate an idea.
Photography was also used to create theatrical and novel reproductions. Giving Literature and drama a visual accompaniment by reenacting postures, costumes, and extracting emotions allowed photography not only to coexist with other art forms but also to enhance the sensory experience. Providing a visual element to non-visual art removes a layer left to individual interpretation and specifies for the audience a more exact emotional depiction, comingling with the story itself. If a photographer decides to vivify already famous artistic moments, he or she is trying to deepen the sense of beauty and emotion present within the original artwork itself. Newhall believes photography is art when it imitates art, when it redirects written language and performance art into visual, pictorial language.
Lastly, Newhall believes photography is art when it influences other artists and other artists influence photographers. Different genres of art interact, an influence is usually reciprocated until a new blending of genres emerges and enriches the world. This was certainly true even when photography was still on the fence of appreciation. On one hand, printmakers, etchers, and especially painters used photography to better reproduce their ideas and ambitions. The most famous painters include Eugène Delacroix, Gustav Courbet, and Dante Gabriel Rosetti. Delacroix wrote the following to a friend in 1854 to explain photography’s usefulness:
How I regret that such a wonderful invention arrived so late—I mean as far as I am concerned! The possibility of studying such results would have had an influence on me that I can only guess at by their usefulness to me now, even with the little time I can put aside studying them in depth: it is the tangible demonstration of drawing from nature, of which we have had more than quite imperfect ideas (qtd. in Newhall, “History of Photography” 82).
Newhall might say that this is slightly different than mechanical reproduction, that this particular photography is art because it synthesizes the artist’s view of the natural world with his/her own creative expression of that world. Photography is art when it is used by other artists to inspire, direct, perfect, and enhance their own compositions. At times, if it weren’t for the particular photograph, the paint and the hand would still be an inadequate set of tools to communicate the artist’s concept as purely as he/she imagined, as Delacroix noted in the letter to his friend. On the other hand, photography is art when the process is reversed, moving the other direction, when the inspiration is drawn from another art movement and manifests into the photograph. A famous example of this is found in Alfred Stieglitz’s The Steerage, an echo of the Cubism movement, trickled down from Picasso and Cezanne. Stieglitz did more than any other twentieth century photographer to make the case for photography as “art.” His revolutionary technical and critical writings for photography magazines and journals, world renowned award-winning photography, and ownership of influential and prestigious photography galleries in New York City are just a few of many achievements that distinguish him.
As Miles Orville points out:
The photographer could not create abstract forms in the manner of the painter, but he or she could ‘discover’ them by framing the subject so as to bring out the abstract shapes of the scene. In practice, this meant employing the close-up to cut off a view of the whole subject and offering the viewer a section that held together as an abstract composition, organized both through geometric shapes and the patterning and echoing of one detail against another (Orvell 88).
This quotation, taken from Orvell’s American Photography, reiterates one of the first features of photography as art; photography is art when it experiments with specific techniques to create a deliberate and specific creative effect. The Steerage is a clear stylistic sibling to cubist paintings. The emphasis on geometric shapes is obvious—the photograph is a rich composite of poles, bridges, chains, and other boat machinery to enunciate the shapes’ relationship to one another in the world and to deliver an underlying feeling, the division of class traveling by boat, the first class and the lower class divided. Photography is art when the subject and style can be found in other forms of art, like a common vein with similar appreciative for a specific type of creation.
1. Alfred Stieglitz, The Steerage (1907)
Yet, according to Newhall and others, photography is not always art. Photography has a different set of stylistic features when its primary function is documentary. What becomes most difficult to isolate, because the idea is always served as explanation, is the perception that documentary is meant to capture reality, to express truth. This is what makes the distinction so theoretically controversial and in general questions the way photography is divided into these categories in the first place. Beaumont Newhall recognizes that “It is undeniable that the documentary method, as opposed to the abstract desire to produce Fine Art, has resulted in significant photographic art” (“Documentary Approach to Photography” 4). Basically, when a photographer’s purpose is not to experiment with technique to elevate the aesthetic, highly artistic and emotive results are still embedded in the composition. It is unfair to say that documentary photography is uncreative or a simple transfer of fact onto film. How is the documentary aesthetic different from the art aesthetic? For the purposes of this paper, let us make a few general distinctions, honored by famous art historians and critics.
“Documentary Approach to Photography” by Beaumont Newhall discusses these distinctions and compliments the artistic value within the pictorial documents of famous photographers such as Matthew Brady, Bernice Abbott, Eugene Atget, Walker Evans, Lewis Hine, Ansel Adams, and others. Overall, Newhall’s point seems to be that these photographers are neither technicians nor artists—they are visualizers:
He puts into pictures what he knows about, and what he thinks of, the subject before his camera. Before going on an assignment he carefully studies the situation which he is to visualize. He reads history and related subjects. He examines existing pictorial material for its negative and positive value—to determine what must be re-visualized in terms of his approach to the assignment, and what has not been visualized (Newhall 5).
Jacob Riis is one such visualizer, who fits the above definition of a documentary photographer. The situation that he studied and wanted to change was the rampant poverty in New York City, especially in Lower East Side tenements, and economic inequities in general. To show this side of the city to a larger audience, he visualized the sorts of pictures and subjects necessary to communicate his ideas. He often, but certainly not always, obtained permission before the photograph was taken and paid his subjects to pose in a particular manner. He was given access to strangers’ homes and hovels and earned the trust of street paupers. By working so closely with his subjects, planning and communicating, he was able to capture what he visualized-- his vision of poverty in all of its wretched sordidness and squalor-- to change popular public opinion that people were poor because they wanted to be. He didn’t always have to rely on spontaneity which probably troubles some documentary purists who would question Riis’ sense of “real” if his subjects are representing his vision instead of their life. For example, a famous photograph entitled Children Sleeping taken in 1890 shows three small boys, approximately five years old, sleeping below street level in some sort of recess. According to CUNY Graduate Center’s American Social History Project, Jacob Riis paid these boys, probably with cigarettes to pose as is evident because the sunlight indicates day light. Riis was also rumored to pay local street thugs to reenact fights and muggings so he could get just the right picture. His technique as a documentary photographer clearly relied on his specific plan and tinkering with truth to create a pictorial representation that would cause a very specific emotional reaction.
2. Jacob Riis, Children Sleeping in Mulberry Street (1890)
Documentary photographers must have a sense of social purpose and use photography as a way to expose and enlighten an audience to societal injustices and systematic oppression. The majority of the best documentary work seems to concern the poor, underprivileged, racially marginalized, and weak members of society. According the Newhall, photographs taken to promote the picturesque or forms of great beauty are not documentary unless they are taken with a serious sociological purpose (“Documentary Approach to Photography” 5). It seems that a documentary photograph must be both visually beautiful and creative while also stirring deep human emotions and connecting larger processes of the human experience. Though documentary photographers have different approaches, they share an enthusiasm for capturing “the real,” and the need to visually catch information.
However, it’s silly and even dangerous to equate documentary photography with truth. Maren Stange, appreciated for her scholarship in visual culture and cultural histories, offers a closer and more critical look at what is sometimes disregarded during conventional conversations discussing the social and political impact of documentary photography: “Documentary, a central mode of communications, has assisted the liberal corporate state to manage not only our politics but also our esthetics and our art” (Stange 15). According to Stange, photography is documentary when it communicates ideas which could lead to a mass public reaction, for example, a sympathetic reaction to encourage the public to support a cause. The connection made between documentary photography and its cultural impact suggests a negative fact hidden behind the tricky ways documentary photographers use “truth” to influence reform for government programs. The quote is also powerful because it seems to comment on the hidden agenda inexplicitly communicated by the function of documentary. The documentary mode is a social and political construct, represented by “the image set in relation to a written caption, as associated text, and a presenting agency (such as the reform organization or, later, the museum)” (Stange 14). Photography is documentary when it is accompanied by a caption or presented with text to explain to the audience who/what/where/why/when to help sink the actuality of the event into the consciousness of the audience and also to attach strong signs within the written language usually absent from photography when it is art. Attaching written language with visual language leaves room for less interpretation and improves the odds of an audience accepting that what it sees is truthful and the emotions that it feels is authentic. Documentary photographs participate in their own symbolic system of organized knowledge whether pushing for social reform, documentation, shock, or a combination.
The final descriptions of photography as documentary come from famous art critic Elizabeth McCausland’s “Documentary Photography,” published in January 1939. McCausland enthusiastically described documentary as “an application of photography direct and realistic, dedicated to the profound and sober chronicling of the external world” (McCausland 1). Additionally, documentary photographs use human subjects to create indelible expressions of the external world. Documentary must photograph people: a whole body, a hand, a face, a profile, or a bunch. The frame shows us how to look at a particular group or type of human beings. “We look at the world with a new orientation, more concerned with what is outside than with the inner ebb and flow of consciousness […] with new eyes, the eyes of scientific, uncompromising honesty” (McCausland 1). Photography is documentary when it connects to realism, when it offers a brand of hard-to-swallow human truth, when it arranges the actual into symbolic arrangements of reality, whether spontaneous or specifically captured, photography is documentary when it informs, for better or worse.
Art and documentary come from different schools of photography. The individuals who helped shaped the genre’s stylistic features have diverse opinions and beliefs that advise how they manipulate their techniques to suit the purpose of their particular project. Jacob Riis photographs slums to help others understand an otherwise unknown and disturbing reality, hoping to incite social reform. Alfred Stieglitz is more concerned with artistic photography, channeled through very precise and specific images. This can’t always be the case with photography—there are complicated elements that make some photography quite hard to classify. Lisette Model’s photographs are spontaneous, yet strategic; they are abstract, yet truthful. We will look carefully into Model’s character and career to specify exactly why interpreting her work as either/or is a disservice.
Lisette Model: An Icon of Incoherency
Lisette Model is an icon of incoherency because what is known of her life and work, then and now, exude questions instead of answers. Perhaps this is because her overall retrospective is difficult to articulate; her photography slurs categorical possibility. Or maybe questions thrive when so little is written or explained from biographical or critical standpoints. The few resources available, only one being extensive and thorough, are still somewhat frustrating to work with because Model provides disjointed biographical and somewhat incomplete information. Ann Thomas, author of the only Model retrospective, attempts to fill these gaps, though her answers are often at odds with Model’s answers.
The primary source of knowledge available on the subject of Model’s biographical beginnings is in fact the only source available, beyond a few 1000 word essays included in general, compilation texts. When the National Gallery of Canada decided to show a few of Model’s photographs in 1985 and 1986, producer of the exhibit, Ann Thomas, decided to research the raw archives available through Gerd Sander, a close associate of Model’s and whose gallery represented her work (Thomas 10). Questioning Sander, access to Model’s negatives and to her teaching notebooks, taped, and unpublished interviews from various sources, allowed Ann Thomas to write a large, comprehensive, folio sized book dedicated to Model’s life and work. Thomas explained in the Preface:
I have aimed to present a fuller and more accurate picture of her accomplishments as a photographer and teacher than has so far been made and to provide a glimpse into a life lived with passion, commitment, and humour, but marked more deeply by pain than she would have led anyone to believe (Thomas 10).
Clearly this source has much to offer, not only because of the size and scope of the research but because it is the only text over 1000 words attempting to discuss the work of Lisette Model in such a comprehensive sense, giving her the credit she’s due. For the purposes of creating a biographical sketch from this singular, seminal text, I will quote extensively from Model herself, the factual, narrative statements, and even some of the criticism and language imposed by Ann Thomas. This text is necessary as foundation and will help me provide only what is necessary when using a biography to establish a somewhat indecipherable context, not to use her background as proof or evidence of later manifestations within her work.
Model is a “famous” photographer first discovered through a collection conceived in Paris, Promenade des Anglais, and several collections envisioned in New York City: Running Legs, Reflections, Lower East Side, and Coney Island. Though her work features Paris and New York, Model was born in Vienna, Austria in 1901 into a bourgeois lifestyle that may or may not have influenced her later work, particularly the satirical nature of Promenade des Anglais. Thomas notes that it was difficult for interviewers to convince Model to answer questions about her childhood. When asked to discuss her childhood, Model responded:
I do not believe in this Freudian idea that you are completely moulded by your early years. Sometimes people change very much in their adult years […] There is also the problem of truth. I don’t believe that one can say the way it was. If I speak about my childhood I am not telling the truth about it, I am interpreting it from my present mind (Thomas 27).
No matter how hard the interviewer pushes Model to discuss her formative years, Model is disinterested and annoyed. Perhaps she is annoyed because the idea of the past is so riddled with ambiguities and dependent on the construction of her current consciousness, an inaccurate source. Or perhaps Model is annoyed that her past is important to the interviewer; why should her past bear any permanent imprint on her present talent, projects, and decisions? Whatever the reason, it’s clear that Model is reluctant to let anyone make a link between then and now to infer what shapes her or what is responsible for her present reputation--to do so would take some of the power out of her work by connecting a past incident or projected insecurity into the premise of her work.
What we do know about Model’s past is that she was originally trained and educated as a violinist, then more seriously as a concert pianist. She even trained extensively with Arnold Schöenberg, the famous painter and pianist. Thomas emphasized that Schöenberg’s “radical paring away of the conventions surrounding contemporary music attracted Lisette and later became a fundamental principle of her visual art” (Thomas 35). It’s true that Model’s work never settled into normative categories but what could also be inferred from this statement is that it’s especially unconventional that Model was influenced more by her music teacher and as Thomas asserts, the movement in Expressionist paintings than any photographer. According to Thomas, Model, as is characteristic of her, has denied influence from any source upon her work: “I just picked up the camera without any kind of ambition to be good or bad. And especially without any ambition to make a living…” (Thomas 43). Even so, it’s pretty hard to ignore the glaring similarities between some of Model’s work and Expressionist paintings by Gustav Klimt and Egon Schiele. Immediately, there is room to question Model’s words, her version of reality. Thomas uses both written and pictorial examples to link Model to Expressionist ideology and painting. The following quotation from Schiele does seem to resonate with Model’s viewpoints on photography as art. According to Schiele:
Art always remains the same: art. Therefore there is no new art. There are new artists….The new artist is and must be absolutely himself. He must be a creator and he must construct an unprecedented foundation, all alone, without utilizing anything of the past or present….Formula is his antithesis (Thomas 34).
3. Woman with Hat and Feather Boa, 1909
4. Edith Schiele in Hat and Veil, 1915
5. Woman in Veil, 1949
At first, it seems like a researcher must make a choice to either side with Model, who claims ignorance or to side with Thomas who works hard to undermine Model and shows convincing visual evidence that Model’s photography must be linked to Expressionist painters. Instead of making a choice, the point here is to notice that this is one of many inconsistencies encountered when trying to learn about Model’s past and the influences that inspired her photography. There are no articles that suggest she was inspired by other photographers or photography.
Model left Vienna and moved to Paris in 1926 where she changed her mode of musicianship from concert pianist to voice training. Abruptly in 1933, Model quit voice lessons and exited the scene completely (Thomas 39). No one is quite sure why she decided to quit. For whatever reason, it seems Model herself neither disclosed why she stopped playing piano and decided to sing nor why she ended her music career entirely, seven years later. One may guess that she decided she would never earn the credit or fame she yearned for or that maybe she tired of music. It’s anyone’s guess as far as facts are concerned. It seems probable that Model was willing to devote herself to several disciplines to make her creative mark on the world. By the time she was 32 years old, she was highly trained in violin, piano, and vocals. This seems to show an incredible resilience in character, changing skins and devoting oneself so completely to expression, even if particular expressions fail to meet certain expectations. Model even studied painting for a bit, though later she never discussed the topic in any of her taped interviews. (Thomas 42) Thomas emphasized that no matter which medium she was interested in, Model worked hard to adapt what was unconventional in the genre.
Model’s first experience with photography seems casual on the surface. Her little sister Olga opened her up to the idea of photography, even though Olga herself was more clinical in her approach:
I had a little sister who was a very good photographer. But I had no idea about photography and I said to myself, but I have seen people doing laboratory work, and so I talked to her and went to Italy and bought myself a camera and this and that and an enlarger…and this is the way I started to photograph. Just like that. With no intention to photograph. With no idea about photography, without even liking it. Without being interested (Thomas 43).
Olga showed her the basics—how to shoot, use instruments, and develop photographs. Thomas credits Olga with introducing the idea of photography as a profession even though there is little to no evidence suggesting that she influenced Model in any way beyond the practical mechanics of operation. A short time after she had been introduced to the medium through Olga, Lisette received a demonstration of the use of the Rolleiflex from Rogi André, a photographer who had taken her under her wing (Thomas 44). Model’s self-described reputation for having absolutely no formal training in photography from any sort of art school or teacher is mostly true but never forgets to mention the following informal training from André as fundamental to her core photographic pedagogy:
I had no idea how to hold a camera, but she had just started to photograph too. I said, “Could you show me how?” She said “Yes.” So we walked around in Paris, and then she said, “What do you see here?” I didn’t see anything, because I was completely non-visual, you see. And then she said one sentence I have never forgotten! “Never photography anything you are not passionately interested in.” That was the only lesson in photography I’ve ever got (Thomas 44).
In other words, when studying Model’s photographs, know that she was “passionately interested in what she saw.” Yet this quotation does not really satisfy some basic biographical questions that would help illuminate and capture a coherent line of thinking to help us understand her decisions: Why did Model choose photography, something she knew nothing about? Why did she abandon her previous disciplines she devoted the majority of her life perfecting? Her initial answer, “passion” doesn’t really lend to a clear motive; it’ s not precise and certainly doesn’t hit the spot in terms of understanding what kind of photographer she becomes and what elements of her work she owes to other inspirations. It’s almost as if Model fully credits herself and something she’s unable to articulate within herself instead of paying tribute to any other external influences. The absence of a truth here makes it consequently difficult to understand where she originally began as an artist; all artists grow, expand, change, etc. but we only can acknowledge this with a clear starting point, out of a clear genre, school, or antithesis of the former. Conceivably, the incoherency of influence and background from the start is damaging to Model’s merit as an artist because scholarship, retrospectives, and academic attention in general does not usually seem to center attention on an amateur or a fluke, which is one way to read why there is so little written about her. Overall, what is most important to note in terms of her shaky biographic beginnings, as hard as it is to define where Model came from, in terms of motivation, pedagogy, and ability, it is even harder to discern the truth and meaning behind her work.
Obscuring Specific Identities
Lisette Model’s major photographic series are in some ways just as difficult to decipher as her biography, but for different reasons. Model’s biography creates incoherency because a lack of written information exists besides the controversies and gaps present in the narrative. However, visual information available through approximately 40 years of photography is overwhelming. There is plenty to assess in terms of her voluminous corpus. The visual stimulation of her collection is refreshing but one also hits a wall when it comes to entering the visual information into the formerly established systems that determine whether or not a photograph is art or documentary. At a glance, some of her photographs make it tempting to label Model’s work as documentary or social realist because her photographs focus on human subjects, depend on the spontaneity of her technique, and bring out the emotionality of her subjects, which she admits to chasing. Clearly this generalization is over simplistic and overlooks the artistic undercurrents, some flowing stronger than others. Thomas explains that Model had difficulty with the idea of a photograph being considered a document of literal fact. “She proposed that photographs are abstracted images detached from the physical world and cautioned her students against prosaic interpretations pointing out that they can only be analogies to reality and not replicas of the objects depicted” (Thomas 86). This suggests Model believed that photographs can never expose reality, only individual, private analogies. Many of Model’s photographs are highly artistic with murmurs of what could be documentary. Model’s work exemplifies how not to let photography stagnate by using binaries that allow us to define photography as art or documentary when the use and actual impossibility of such distinctions, as is obvious with Model, narrow what can be seen, felt, and learned from photography. Specifically, studying photographs from various collections, Running Legs, Reflections, Promenade des Anglais, Lower East Side, and Coney Island, we will see how Model uses fragmentation, dematerialization/hybridization, and profilization to obscure the identities of her subjects, thus creating artistic documentaries of the human social structure.
In Running Legs, Model crops off pieces of the body within the frame, thus fragmenting the bodies as a whole. In Reflections, Model’s photography departs from what we know to actually be a whole body but her technique develops to show us less than a whole body, as if certain body parts were vaporized while a new object appears in their place, hence the removal of the original material and purposeful replacement to create hybrids. Lastly, profilization is a term I use to accentuate the way Model creates character-types and incites her audience to categorize these types into social generalizations. This obscures the identity of the individual by perpetuating type-ideology, making it impossible for us to see these people as individuals rather than characters.
6. Lisette Model, Running Legs, New York, between 1940 and 1941
7. Running Legs, Forty-second Street, between 1940 and 1941
8. Running Legs, Fifth Avenue, between 1940 and 1941
Model obscures the identities of her subjects using fragmentation, an experimental technique common to artists, architects, and writers who used modern aesthetics to make meaning in their work by modifying traditional forms. The basic thesis of fragmentation demands a new organization of self which disregards former concepts of self. The new focus portrays the self as internally split and comprised of multiple parts. Dehumanizing the subject by breaking him into bits symbolizes that in fact, the individual is a small part of the social machinery, a capitalist apparatus oiled to make money despite the exploitation of others, for example. Fragmentation or splintering also metaphorically challenges metanarratives of truth, universal ideologies applied to explain intensely complicated systems of being. Nothing is universally or wholly true; there are many pieces to the puzzle that we cannot arrange to find truth. Fragmentation is meant to show disconnectedness and alienation within the relationship of the self to the world and the self to the self.
The Running Legs collection was taken over two years after Model and her husband Evsa Model moved to New York City, the heartland of Modernity and the center of Modern Art. Therefore, her use of fragmentation in photography is not necessarily surprising. In fact, fragmentation in and of itself implies that Model identifies herself as an artist experimenting with form. As is clear from the photographs, Model activates fragmentation by purposefully pointing her camera at the ground or crouching down to capture only the legs of her subjects, thus eliminating the rest of their bodies. She deliberately exposes only certain fragments of people, usually below the waste. Chopping off over half of the body suggests that the entire body is not necessary and that only one specific part is needed to communicate meaning. As the name of the title indicates, the meaning is not only found in the legs themselves, but also in the movement and positioning of these legs, which reveals a narrative, social commentary within the collection. As we will see within the pictures below, the commentary speaks to the surprising pace of industry and the negative impacts of commercialism. The intermingling of these two features is precisely what leads to the shadows that inhibit distinction between characteristics of art and documentary.
Running Legs, New York
As previously stated, the images in this series are observably artistic because they employ an experimental technique by fragmenting the subject in the image. This characteristic, common in Modern Art, communicates meaning beyond fact in the context of modernism, a time of intense industrialization and therefore, urbanization. In Dr. Olivier Zunz’s book, The Changing Face of Inequality, a social history of an American city undergoing industrialization, urbanization, and immigration, he quotes extensively from the U.S. Census Bureau and the U.S. Department of Commerce to illustrate the staggering developmental changes in America during the transition into the twentieth century.
The majority of Americans lived in cities but also defined metropolitan districts around the large metropolises so as to include the new suburban populations with their core cities […] Simultaneously, large business corporations accomplished an organization revolution in mass production and distribution techniques. They formed the new corporate giants that sustained the United States’ massive industrial production during the First World War and provided the economic basis for the country’s ascent to world power (Zunz 1).
The atmosphere of New York City was no exception. The boom in industry and rise of titanic corporations contributed to the hive of activity seen as clock-punchers of all trades rush to and fro from the trains and buses to their office buildings on Fifth Avenue. This particular photograph produces a sensation of mobility and accentuates the rise of production, manifested in the form of a rushing worker. The image shows two men moving hurriedly in opposite directions. On a small scale, the transient nature of the fleeing feet suggests that it is difficult to apprehend the subject and furthermore difficult to comprehend the movement.
The movement can be seen as a physical escape and a symbolic one. The subjects in these photographs are disappearing rapidly out of the photograph. Because the subjects are fragmented, we are left with a vague, unclear subject. There is no way to look at these men up close and no way to study their facial expressions, their accessories, or any identifiable objects we use to understand others. It is hard to understand who is in this photograph which is probably the point. Without being able to apprehend the subject, there is no way to identify his generation and ethnicity, for example. The content reinforces a modern mantra that insists that there is no longer the same sort of individualism in American ideology. It seems that Model may use the blurry movement of these men to tap into the busy, worker-drone identities of men en masse and to show that these rushing beings belong no longer to themselves, no longer to their families, but that they become busy products of the aforementioned industries. It can be difficult to comprehend the new standard, the rapid growth of a nation’s capital, and the invisible restructuring of society that illuminates issues such as the class struggles, poverty, and racism. Model shows us what is visible, the scampering feet bustling, a small measurement of the commercial America. This photograph looks like art because it uses fragmentation and experiments with the use of the subject yet it feels like documentary because overall it brings a social issue into the conversation. If Model wanted to simply show feet and legs, there would still be a need to only photograph the legs but not necessarily a need to show the movement. The legs, as the title implies, are major motion-casters. The movement in the picture is the catalyst that calls for an interpretation beyond what is artistically obvious and important to note as social commentary, a feature of documentary.
Running Legs, Forty-second Street
The second chosen image from the Running Legs collection has similar features as the first. The subject is captured below the waste and people are moving wearing professional clothing. Similar interpretative notes may be carried over as well; clearly Model’s curiosity and commentary toward the buzz of business in New York City is very present. Yet the specificities in the photograph allow for analysis that adds more to the documentary angle of the collection and the art angle of the collection.
The close proximity and direct angle of the photograph create a collage effect, somewhat claustrophobic, of female legs in stockings and heels. The only image out of place belongs to a man set precisely in the middle of the frame. The man may even be a police officer or some sort of uniformed chaperone type of official. The juxtaposition of genders and the symmetrical mass of legs create a distasteful impression by continuing to blur the individual subjects, creating a cluttered frame, and positioning a somewhat more powerful man in the middle of the action. The collage effect shows many people together but the effect doesn’t seem to communicate that this is about a group mentality or that people are working together; it ironically communicates a similar message to the prior photograph that these individuals are not connected though they’re so close together. The legs are walking and moving in different directions, following their own paths. We can see this because Model crouched down to take a straight shot instead of tilting the camera down from a standing position.
Placing the male officer in the middle of the photograph provides a variety of interpretive possibilities. Does the man in the middle hold a position of power, supporting the ideology that men are at the center of things, calling the shots, directing the passive? Does the man in the middle uphold a supervisory, authoritative position, watching over the citizens to ensure that rules are not broken? Perhaps the rules aren’t the superficial traffic infractions but maybe the rules that hold intact gender binaries and stereotypes commonly believed and expressed during the 1940s. Regardless, he stands casually in place, hands in his pockets, as a permanent fixture in the frame while the women hum and move around him, quickly to escape the frame and be replaced by another set of legs in stockings, wearing business attire heels. They are replaceable and less important than the man. It’s so easy to say maybe and to notice what is socially exposed but because of Model’s artistic technique, the possibilities are numerous and uncontained by the complicated angle and composition of visual representation. The commentary is embedded underneath what is immediately perceived as an artistic assemblage of legs.
Running Legs, Fifth Avenue
Fifth Avenue, the final example from the Running Legs collection carries the strongest story, the most direct confrontation in the narrative of America’s changing values. The iconic imagery is impossible to ignore and communicates strong and clear messages of nationalism, consumerism, and the rise of women in the work force. Again, Model uses artistic techniques to obscure the identities in the photograph and the identities of art and documentary in photography.
Fifth Avenue tells a story by using what most people would consider straight forward symbols connected to America in the 1940s. The national flag blows in the wind at the top. A late 1930s model Ford occupies the middle. A thin woman’s leg in stocking and heel at the bottom registers in the forefront. There is plenty to say about this, for example, perhaps Model was preoccupied with manufactured American images used to represent strength, commerce, pride, and vision. By reproducing these images yet again in the frame of her photographs, she has perpetuated these ideas already mainstream symbols. However, because she cuts them off or in half, she may be suggesting something more that doubts the potency of the images, leaving them partly visible, shrouded by shadows, and interrupted by other objects in the frame.
Yet even with all of these straight-forward, easy to identify symbols of industrial growth, wealth, and pride, this photograph is not only an example of documentary. Model purposely fragments the woman, the automobile, and the flag. The flag is cut off at the top, the Ford is cut off through the middle by the position of the leg, which is also a piece of the rest of a body left outside the frame. Using the bits of the iconography draws attention to the complex and automatic ways people absorb images. Maybe it’s not necessary to see the entirety of what’s there because we can fill in the gaps on our own with the help of embedded, advertised marketing information and the unconscious residue of the images from deliberate advertising saturation, particularly in the case of the flag and the Ford. There’s something different with the leg here, probably because it’s all on its own without other legs. This leg is somewhat provocative because it signifies femininity more strongly when it is captured alone. In fact, the leg adds glamour and chic it to the iconic images in ways that could not be produced if the leg was missing from the photograph. The final result is a mysteriously sexy leg walking among the shadows of commercialism, production, and national identity. Model artistically manipulates the familiar imagery to disturb normative readings of the imagery and express an alluring alternative to the materiality of the objects as functional objects.
Lisette Model, Reflections, 1939-1940:
9. First Reflection, New York
10. Window, Bonwit Teller, New York
The Reflections series is a glaringly artistic collection that transposes window displays with the people in the streets, for whom these window displays are construction. The newly formed reflections, cast two formerly separate spheres into a single hybrid narrative with multiple layers. No matter whose viewpoint we see the reflection from, the perspective of the spectator looking into the window or from the perspective of the window display looking out at the world, a new complication arises when the two spheres interact. In other words, the world of window displays and the world of people collide to create brand new stories, depending on what you’re looking at. Because the technique relies on blurring and blending, the layers can be difficult to simplify into straight-forward meaning which runs the risk of seeming abstract or esoteric. In the social realism sense, these photographs dramatically communicate that people are dangerously preoccupied with purchasing, in one way or another, to the point that it diminishes some part of them. Even so, the photographs manage to break down standard impressions of documentary and art.
Reflections, First Reflection
The store window offers piles of clothing and hats with price tags resting on top of the merchandise, advertising the cost of the product. The spectator of the window is a man who wears a fedora but nothing else is obvious because he is a silhouetted form. These two entities may be pretty uninteresting, normally witnessing nominal interactions, serving nothing surprising or out of place. When Model transposes the two, routine, invisible interaction proves rich in interpretive possibility. There is destruction and realigning of what was formerly cohesive matter. The man’s entire form, aside from his outline or silhouette fades from visual existence and his new make-up appears to be comprised of the materials and objects from the store. The departure of his face is replaced by a square, plastic letter “S.” The letter “S” could belong to any word, the word from which it belongs in not entirely legible due to the way Model developed the negative. Most likely it is an “S” standing for “sale” or maybe the first letter of the store name, which seems to begin with the letter “S.” Regardless, when it occupies the space of a man’s mind, enclosed in the skull of his fedora, it becomes a psychological subject and question of what this “S” is supposed to mean when it’s trapped inside of his mind.
The letter “S” imposing in his mind seems to suggest that although the clothes sit waiting to be sold, it is actually men who are for sale. Men are easy to sell an idea to because they absorb the advertisements without thinking. Perhaps the rise of consumerism has led men to believe that they actually need these new products. Or maybe the implication is that men always have selling on their mind. Their focus is driven by greed and the comfort of possessing dollars. Or maybe neither; the layers open up possibilities even if they are contrived and relative to the eye of the beholder. Thomas writes that “deep within North American culture, the cult of glamorization has absorbed the art object into its sphere of influence” (Thomas 67). The new shapes and forms dematerialize the original objects and make room for new comprehension routes and circuitry to form in the mind of the viewer. Questions are ok—they expose what isn’t clear. What is really for sale? What is really at stake? Are the clothes for sale or the idea that men need new clothes to make them happy? In what ways does consumerism also manipulate men and dematerialize the notion of self to instigate a purchase? Overall, who benefits and who pays the final cost?
Model’s technique in Reflections compresses the external world into the frame of a window. Model refers to the window as “a geometric vehicle for containing the chaos of the city” (Thomas 66). The chaos and subject of this particular photograph settles on a movement new in America, especially in large cities. “The country of making images of everybody” was startling to Model coming from Europe, a place no where near as preoccupied with image-making (Thomas 66). It inspired her enough to use the new machinery of advertising and merchandise to focus her work. Model’s own image-making process is artistic because she erased physical truths via dematerialization, transposition which in turn created hybrid-images with overlapping bits and pieces from documentary and art to create a comprehensive original image. This is highly manipulative and takes advantage of shadows, contrast, and juxtaposition to project an image of “visual lyricism” (Thomas 67). For all these reasons, the photograph is artistic and poses questions toward the reality of the visual content. The image is not realistic but it does express a truth that is just starting to resonate consciously—the cultural phenomenon of consumerism. From Model’s perspective as a new-to-town “visualizer,” First Reflection documents a phenomenon that affects the reality of everyone exposed. The pictorial warning hints to be cognizant of this unique social issue worth exploring.
Reflections, Window, Bonwit Teller
The Bonwit Teller Department store window encases a near-nude mannequin, draped in lingerie made primarily out of feathers. A very low-cut V-neck line hardly covers what would be nipples. A fig leaf style feather on a string barely covers what would be a vagina. The form of its body is posed sexually in that old, come-hither hip out, hand at the head cliché of suggestion. The mannequin is an idealized vision of femininity and sexuality. The male subject has his back turned to the mannequin, seemingly oblivious of a window display catered to his desires or maybe even what creates and shapes what he deems desirable. He wears a hat, smokes a cigarette, and reads the paper with his cane held near him by his elbow. He is dressed professionally—his shirt, tie, and dress coat indicate that he probably earns some sort of executive salary. The way Model photographs the window reveals the reflection from the other side of the street which blends into the form of the mannequin. It is now blurred into the form of a large building located across the street.
When the idealized mannequin’s form seems to become part of the city’s superstructure, the concrete and beams of corporations common in the city’s landscape, questions become part of the analysis process—how do we synthesize the forms to make meaning? Maybe the idealized woman was first a corporate manufactured image to create desire in men and the need to look desirable for men by purchasing sexy lingerie. Or maybe the idealized woman as passive object of desire for men is an institution as thickly woven into the tapestry of cultural consciousness as the institutions of newly forming corporations controlling most of the nation’s wealth. Also worth noting is the juxtaposition of the mannequin to the man. It stands behind and above him. Its transparency generates a dreamy quality that contributes to the fabricated image of her existence. Is she a dream? Is she vanishing or appearing?
Window, Bonwit Teller is a visually complicated photograph. The reflection creates the effect of a paranormal sighting or fading, depending on how you look at it. The physicality of the mannequin becomes enmeshed with the physicality of the corporate building across the street. Like the previous photograph, Model’s technique in the Reflections series was designed to experiment with the unique visual dynamics of New York City to create new stories. Even though the formula for Model’s story sacrifices what is considered straight-forward in the realistic glare of documentary, the very real and various stories hidden within the imagery form truths that perhaps many people do not want to see.
11. Lisette Model, Promenade des Anglais (Lounging Man), Nice, 1934
12. Lower East Side, (Woman Shielding Her Face) New York, 1939-1945
The next series of photographs were cherry-picked from three different locations and chosen because they work well in contrast with the Running Legs and Reflections collections. These portraits seem like pretty straight forward portraits of real people without any camera tricks or technical razzle-dazzle. Even so, these photographs cannot be categorized as documentary because the term is insufficient. There must be a compromise between generalized terminology of art and documentary if we want to see the truth and the beauty in Model’s photography.
In brief, the Promenade de Anglais collection was photographed in Nice, just around the corner from Model’s mother’s house, during what most would consider Model’s formative years; Promenade des Anglais was her first major collection to receive world recognition. There is a person or a group of people in every single photograph in the collection. Most of the people who occupy the photographs belong to the bourgeois class. They have time to sit outside in the sun and enjoy the breeze of the Mediterranean Sea. Citing the political atmosphere at the time, most critics considered this a scathing attack on those who spent their days idly. The cultural impact was strengthened when Regard magazine printed this series with satirical captions which suggested very clearly to the reader exactly what kind of reaction they should be having. The manipulative effect of captions—the use of language to direct thinking—changes the gaze of the audience and undermines Model’s authenticity. Ann Thomas believes “The people who occupied The Promenade fascinated her because they connected at one level with her own life—yet were alien to her values on another” (Thomas 45). In other words, Model was raised middle-class and could therefore relate to their position and advantages yet she dissociates herself with the undesirable qualities of laziness exhibited through this spectacle. Model focuses on her subjects, one at a time, at eye level to portray a sort of truthfulness about these characters but uses artistic techniques to record something strangely poetic where there is a loss of beauty.
Promenade des Anglais, Lounging Man
Model used a Rolleiflex twin-lens camera which is important because the viewing system was designed so that Model had to hold the camera at chest or waist level, making spontaneous or candid photography awkward (Thomas 46). Instead of quickly pulling up a camera hanging from the neck photographers using a Rolleiflex most likely had to look down and up a few times before deciding on an image. This is interesting to note because it means that Model was probably conspicuous just by walking through a flock of inactivity with her camera. Furthermore, she must have stood for a moment or two, especially as an amateur, to get just the right photograph. The man in this particular image seems unflinchingly aware of the camera, a little too close for comfort.
We can try to understand what is documentary within Lounging Man by studying what objects we see and how these objects might communicate ideas which could lead to mass reactions. The man’s overall posture, hand position, feet, and gaze offer the most telling signs of his decadent and somewhat insulting lifestyle. The man’s body is lazily draped across a chair, pointing his nose to the sky to receive optimal exposure from the sun rays. It seems he is uninterested in everything else around him because he sacrifices his capacity to look around him for the directness of the sun on his face and body. Unlike the other people in the frame, he does nothing to protect himself from the sun’s glare. One woman wears a hat and sunglasses to avert the glare. Another woman sits far away, completely immersed in shade. Why is he the only one exposed under the direct sun like a spotlight? He looks paralyzed—stuck. It seems Model took advantage of the sun to help the audience scrutinized him, as if he were under a microscope. Now we can look closely.
The lounging man’s hands make him appear crippled, fingers curled up like those of a stroke victim. They are at rest and inexpressive of any action. He isn’t holding anything or using them. They are completely inactive. His hand position contributes to the way that we look at him and understand that he is a less useful member of society, unable and unwilling to contribute to the workforce. His feet command similar attention and signify yet another example of immobility and decadence.
The fabric of the socks that dress his feet is decorative. The juxtaposition of fanciness of his feet near the ornamental tile on the ground reveals an interesting relationship in proximity. The tile and the socks support one another, validating the mutual existence of exclusivity. To exaggerate, it seems that one could not come here without these kinds of feet. When we look closely we can see the socks on his feet are significant because they are evidence of decadence via physical materiality.
The Lounging Man glares back at Model. His steely eyes are the only things that suggest movement or activity. Without any fear, discomfort, or awkwardness, he seems to look directly at the camera. Even though he rolled his eyes to the side of his head, without actually moving his head to face the camera directly, his expression communicates an arrogance that’s quite easy to read. He seems to say that he belongs there, right where he is, and that even the sight of a woman holding a camera at her chest, standing consciously close to him, is not going to make him budge. If the boiling heat from the sun isn’t going to redirect him, certainly a passing stranger won’t either.
It’s easy to understand why the mass reaction to the photographs in this series was one of contempt and criticism. However, it’s uncertain to what extent this was Model’s plan because her photographs were captioned by other publications—first in Regard, a French magazine and later the newspaper PM in New York City. The following are examples of the captions, in particular referring to Lounging Man:
The Promenade des Anglais is a zoo, to which have come to loll in white armchairs the most hideous specimens of the human animal […] The middle class is ugly. Sprawling on chaise lounges under the fairest of skies, before the finest of seas, these people are revealed for what they are: irredeemably old, disgusted, and disgusting. This monumental offence, this fat belly masquerading as a man, this fifty-year-old whose body smothers his chair and whose scorn stifles the entire world, owns a delightful villa at Cimiez, set among vast, luxuriant, nearly tropical gardens. His villa is empty eleven months of the year (qtd in Thomas 50).
Ultimately Model claimed to be ignorant of the captions although the reputations of the publications, particularly Regard, which caused Thomas to point out that Model could not have been entirely naïve, given the staff of famous writers and the reputation of their politics. The captions, though not written by Model and regardless of the extent to which she could imagine what captions might be used, absolutely thrust the images into categories of documentary. Maren Stange would agree that using captions attaches strong signs to an image otherwise not so explicitly communicated. Certainly, there is a clear agenda when the political message of the photograph is written directly underneath the photograph. The image documents a classist controversy and enables members of a particular class to take shots at another.
Lounging Man also seems to fit better with documentary because it is much less artistic than her later works in Running Legs and Reflections. She doesn’t seem to experiment with deliberate fragmentation or dematerialization methods. Visually the photograph was taken using a traditional, straight-forward approach; what the audience sees is what is actually there. Yet it isn’t quite correct to assume that the means and ends of this photograph belong strictly to documentary. Model described photography as “the art of the split-second,” meaning that what she is able to see, even though it’s spontaneous, taps into something raw and vital in her subjects that she wants others to see and feel. “She distinguishes between the mechanical and the ‘selected’ instant” (Thomas 46). Of course, she maintains that her photography is selected carefully, almost by instinct and impulse. She used a few methods in the darkroom to accentuate specific features of the photograph to turn it into her own visual art and not just a moment on The Promenade.
Thomas was able to access the negatives from this collection and compared them to the final developments. Thomas asserts that “The initial psychological currents that flowed between photographer and subject occurred even more strongly a second time when she positioned her negative in the enlarger. For Lisette, the moment of taking the picture was like the making of a preparatory sketch to provide a point of departure for the constructing of a final image” (Thomas 47). Thomas makes a poignant point here by comparing Model’s initial photograph as a sketch to work with, something to detail, design, and mold into her own artistic vision. Lounging Man seems less about creating a document of a particular individual; this isn’t the story of this man’s life. This doesn’t necessarily create a story so much as it creates a type or characterization of the French middle class. The man stands in for all men who fit into this bracket of people. He is profiled as a type and becomes a social generalization of excess simply by existing within the frame that Model enlarged and cropped for us to see.
Lower East Side, Woman Shielding Her Face
Like many of her photographs from the Lower East Side series, Woman Shielding Her Face is a stunning photograph, communicating a thought-provoking, rich, and complex emotional identity. The woman’s left hand steals the show by covering half of her face. Though half of her face is covered, we are still privy to the expression on her face, stalwart and unflinching, yet sorrowful and calm. When we see this photograph, we see a woman shielding her face, as the title indicates, but what is she shielding her face from? Perhaps it’s the sun or maybe Model’s title is purposefully vague to compliment what’s mysterious and hidden within the photograph. What is she protecting her eyes from seeing?
Woman Shielding Her Face is not as political as Lounging Man but I believe that it portrays a generalization of older, aging women. The woman sits in a chair wearing a house dress and glasses. Why is this interesting? She seems to represent a generation of women, old and worn, sitting quietly in their homes. The only light in this picture seems to come from the sun, probably what she is literally shading her eyes from. The woman looks directly into the camera even though the sun or something is bothering her eyes. She doesn’t avoid it completely and lets it still capture some of her attention.
Artistically, I’m most impressed by the parallelism represented by the vertical position of the woman’s arm and the vertical piece of wood on the chair back that thickens at the top to emulate the rough shape of her hand covering her face. This structural similarity is artistic because it expands my understanding of the woman as a commentary on all women. By visually rendering the arm and chair into one idea with two different materials, naturally, we have to wonder what the two have in common and what is significant about their commonalities. The other option is to interpret the geometric shapes discovered and to acknowledge that there is a deliberate and specific artistic effect, simply by using the shapes of objects to correlate in unspecific ways with shapes of the human body. It is clear that Model wished to position the woman and the chair as equals or near equals within the frame; they take up essentially the same amount of room within the frame, both side by side and top to bottom. This photograph is difficult to interpret because documentary and aestheticism are very cleverly blended to the point of uncertainty. I like looking without understanding why I like to look because the language of documentary and art create awkwardness. I struggle to determine if this photograph is a document of aging women or an artistic rendering of everyday shapes in relation to one another.
Contradictions in Self-Definition and Work: Arriving at a Statement
Even Model had a hard time using definitive language to describe her work as art or documentary. Thomas testifies that “When asked whether she would define herself as a documentary photographer, her typical answer was that she did not understand the meaning of the term” (Thomas 93). Yet in the summer of 1946, Model taught a course at The California School of Fine Arts as “Special Instructor in documentary photography.” This seems contradictory because she had previously claimed to not understand the expression and was impervious to the strict definitions and movements of any school or trend that limited her complete autonomy over the camera. Maybe she was desperate for money or needed experience at the cost of holding a title she found bankrupt of meaning. This personal sacrifice is just one biographical example of what makes her career motivations somewhat hard to identify.
In 1951, while holding a different teaching position at The New School, Lisette Model published in article in The New York Times entitled, “Pictures as Art: Instructor Defines Creative Photography As Scientific Eye That Captures Life.” There are several provocative statements that beg for argument and disagreement because they are written absolutely. However, there are two main ideas that are repetitive. Model has a huge problem with the word “creative” being used to describe photography which seems to show what is controversial when trying to define photography as art or documentary. She finds the word “creative” extremely redundant and unnecessary: “Does anyone ever refer to poetry as being creative, or to creative music? Music, poetry are supposed to be creative or they are nothing. The very use of the term creative when applied to photography is therefore discriminatory, implying a difference that does not exist” (Model 143). This statement is essentially arguing that the use of the word “creative” to describe some photographs as absurd because photography is in itself an artistic, creative process. The word is deficient and harmful to others who practice photography without going out of their way to categorize themselves as “creative.”
Photographers who refer to themselves as “creative” are wrongly and stupidly creating an unnecessary boundary between themselves and other photographers. Model is very clear that “creative” photographers are ignorant of something very precious. “The more they experiment, the more they think they are creative. The content is left out; only the pattern remains. To make an experimental picture is the easiest thing in the world. But try to put life into a subject, and a strong organization of elements, and see how difficult it is” (Model 143). To me, this last statement summarizes the duality of art and documentary in her work. There is life but it is organized; there is a pattern; yet it must form two-dimensional beauty.
13. Lisette Model, Coney Island Bather, New York, 1939-1941
Part of what initially helps us to categorize Coney Island Bather as documentary comes immediately from the title. Assigning an exact location to the setting places the material within the frame into a specific context. Coney Island is more than a geographical point on the map—it is and was a well-known destination place for all sorts of people: young and old, rich and poor, boring and eccentric. Places like Coney Island are for everybody wich is precisely the sort of combination that lends to a festivalesque, carnival atmosphere, not to mention the actual carnival of Astroland and sideshows. When we look at this picture and read the title, it’s almost as if we can build the rest of the scenery outside the frame from our embedded imaginings of what we suppose is typical of Coney Island. We might see the other people in the water, the packed diversity of the beach with a glaring sun; the possibilities are endless but the point is that the rest of the visual machinery outside of the frame is already in place. Model was careful to crop the bather’s surroundings because the only thing she wants us to see is this woman although it’s hard to displace her from the imaginary surroundings.
There are somewhat obvious symbols in this photograph. We see a cross dangling between the bather’s breasts. We see that the bather is a rather large, overweight woman. We see that her fingers dig slightly into the sand of the shifting tide. We see her happily posing, smiling even, on the shoreline. There is something fascinating, something uncharacteristically beautiful in the dense arrangement of material facts. The Christian symbol is less about religion and more about a woman who has a belief and chains a trinket around her neck to advertise it. Her obescity is not to be mocked but to be admired, posed somewhat seductively and radiating confidence. The relationship between her fingers and the sand, her body on the shore, remind me of some sort of strange blood/earth intimacy. It is here in this picture that photographic terminology becomes mechanical and stiff. This photograph is candid yet cloaked in something beyond cultural signs. According to one of Model’s entries in her teaching notebooks, she comments on the extent to which her work differed from documentary tradition:
Not the document, the physical appearance or social statement—it goes far beyond—it goes beyond into another plane like words can become poetry—whatever it is—whatever the subject it is always the photographer in relations to his subject and the subject means what? To the photographer—it is not possible to say—how I am to discover my subject matter—what it takes is interest, passion, and endless patience—what’s the hurry? You have a lifetime” (qtd. in Thomas 126).
I admire Model’s honesty as she articulates what she fears she cannot articulate, though she has really tried. We have choices when it comes to the way we interpret photography. It is a mistake to believe that there is a limit to the ways we should learn and feel about any particular photograph. As Model says, “it is not possible.” This is why Model’s photography will not and cannot be categorically confined. What some may refer to as Model’s lack of education, discipline, or technique, is probably true; she didn’t want those things to motivate her or predetermine her course. She never knew what she would photograph until “the art of the split-second,” which is why her work is experimental, artistic, revolutionary, and documentary. The value of her work is incalculable, as it remains widely-ignored and absent from academic conversation. Until she is rediscovered for her poetic tampering and relentless investment in the development of photography, Model will remain as obscured as the individual identities she manipulated for our memory.
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---. Coney Island Bather. 1939-1941. Cybermuse. 27 Apr 2009
---. Fifth Avenue. 1940-1941, Cybermuse. 27 Apr 2009
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