webo29 stumbles by mistake onto the work of Lisette Model, the black and white genius who taught Diane Arbus.
I don’t think I’ve ever liked a photo of a fat lady this much. I came across it whilst researching for another article I plan on writing about Diane Arbus. The woman in the photo smiles. As a matter of fact, she’s practically the epitome of happiness. If you ask me what she’s doing exactly, I’ll answer that I have no idea. She could either be following a seaside aerobics class, or she could be mooning at the sea – with her swimsuit on. Neither seems plausible much but that doesn’t really matter I think.
The photo, I discovered later, was not by Arbus, but by her teacher; Lisette Model, who to be completely honest with you, I had never heard about before. Model taught Arbus in 1957 and Model herself had been taught by André Lhote who also taught Henri Cartier-Bresson. Interesting.
Model was born in Vienna in 1901. She subsequently moved to France and eventually to New York where she first worked for Harper’s Bazaar and then at The New School teaching photography. This apparently, up until she died in 1983.
Superficially, the parallels between Model and Arbus’ work come quick and easy. They both shot in black and white and they both somehow found themselves attracted to the outcasts of society. Somehow however, I find that choice of film and subject are hardly enough to go by when running a thorough comparison.
What I found most interesting was quite the opposite in fact; their dissimilarities – mostly in terms of approaches. While it’s rather clear that with Arbus subjects are asked to pose for photos, with Model, it was quite the opposite: people had to be caught unawares. The reasoning behind this has been explained time and time again: people put up a front when they know they’re being photographed. They might deflate of explode character-wise; they’ll either shy or they’ll go over the top exaggerating every move for the camera – exactly what Model seemed not to be after.
I will not get into the merits of Model’s skills. I think it’s plain for everyone to see how cleverly she mastered the medium; not only in terms of composition but also at lab stage. It’s pretty clear that for example, the intensity of her blacks is well thought out and no coincidence.
If you’d like to find out more about Lisette Model, an Aperture monograph is available. The National Gallery of Canada has an extensve library of images and there are also some clips on YouTube discussing her work. Enjoy and let me know what you think.
All images belong to the National Gallery of Canada.