Recognized as an icon of 20th-century photography for her ability to transform seemingly average subjects into compelling art, Lisette Model continues to resonate with new audiences long after her death in 1983. An exhibition opening today at the Boca Raton Museum of Art, in partnership with the National Gallery of Canada, presents 71 photographs from a collection of 293 prints and includes several of Model’s iconic pieces.
“Photography is one medium in which women artists have long been well represented, especially compared to other art forms," the museum's senior curator, Kathleen Goncharov, says. She points to Julia Margaret Cameron as one major photographer of the early 19th Century, as well as Berenice Abbott, Dorothea Lange, and Margaret Bourke-White, who were contemporaries of Model’s.
Model was Diane Arbus’ photography teacher and a popular instructor at the New School for Social Research in New York by the time Arbus took her first class there in 1957. Both photographers shared an interest in elevating the seemingly average to something unexpected and intriguing, yet Model trained her lens on everyday situations, capturing quiet drama and often abandoning long-held conventions with her credo, "Shoot from the gut."
Goncharov explains that Model’s work was “less about the politics of gender or identity than about exploring the peculiarities of average people in everyday situations.” She adds that though a number of artists were "experimenting with street photography, Model was unique in specifically seeking out and highlighting the commonplace."
Born in Vienna in 1901, Model saw her photos regularly featured in Harper’s Bazaar and included in the inaugural photography exhibition at New York’s Museum of Modern Art. In her early 30s, she shifted from music — after studying with composer Arnold Schoenberg — to visual art while residing for several years in France. There she established herself as a photographer, joining a vital circle of artists that included André Kertész, Henri Cartier-Bresson, and Brassaï.
While in France, she completed a well-known series that arguably launched her celebrity. Photographed on the French Riviera of the 1930s, her subjects were the well-fed of the Promenade des Anglais. This presentation of people as they are, without pretense or judgment, informed Model’s signature style. She continued to gain notoriety for her unapologetic portraits and candid street photography in Paris, Nice, and later New York.
“Exploitation is not my aim,’’ Model said simply, “revelation is.’’
"Lisette Model: Photographs From the Canadian Photography Institute of the National Gallery of Canada." Tuesday, April 24, through October 21 at the Boca Raton Museum of Art, 501 Plaza Real, Boca Raton; 561-392-2500; bocamuseum.org. Admission is $12 for adults, $10 for seniors, and free for members, students, and children 12 and under.