(Originally published in the San Francisco Sentinel, 1991)
People always think it’s sarcastic what I do, but I do not believe in that at all . . . These are people of great strength and vitality – whose life experience is not held back but comes strongly to the surface of their bodies and expression. – Lisette Model
Every photograph in the current Lisette Model exhibition at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art is overtly psychological and graphically blunt. Together these extra-real, corporeal, flesh and bones close-ups portray Model’s relentless search for the overblown within the everyday. As an image maker and teacher she exerted incredible influence over a whole wave of practitioners of social commentary (Arbus, Solomon, etc.) The subjects which attracted her unflinching eye fueled her working method and dictum: shoot from the gut and never photograph anything you do not feel passionately about.
This traveling exhibition features this landmark woman photographer in appropriate blockbuster style. Ann Thomas of the National Gallery of Canada has curated the retrospective with an even-handed sense of risk and respect for the Model legacy. It is a non-stodgy survey which offers a variety of readings of Model’s swiftly framed, tightly cropped, sincere yet manipulated, and highly stylized images.
The size of the prints are impressive given that most photographic experimentation in the 1940s was limited to a photojournalism that fit a magazine format. Scale also relates to the content in these vintage prints, since it pitches the details of the times against the subjects who appear larger than life. In fact, the immense body of prints assembled here appears to have been produced for the unexpected circuit of exhibition opportunities Model found upon arriving in Manhattan.
Brodovitch brought the photographs to the Museum of Modern Art, and they exhibited some of them. I thought they were insane. Since when does photography belong in a museum?
However, as confrontational as this work appears, it is interwoven with the museum context, thus confounding any easy reading of it, on its own terms. For instance, Model’s subjects, her concerns and products, this exhibition, as well as the book that accompanies the show, all bask in aspects of media and mediation from various time periods.
Vintage mats border several the prints, illustrating the original presentational and the design decisions the artist made about fitting the social content of her stark images into newly emerging aesthetic filters. These particular design features highlighted in such a way that they get footnoted and translated from the gallery wall to the jacket folds of the exhibition catalog through matching color coded labeling. The sporadic lucite casings around some of the images call too much attention to themselves as loaners from the Getty Museum. Since Model’s work has had a museum and media life since its inception, it simply cannot be read devoid of that context.
The book published in conjunction with the show is an interesting document that functions as a slick contemporary key to unlocking the work. It effectively deconstructs much of the Model mystique simply through its use of design. It runs parallel texts of different formats and historical voices along side each other, a plausible master narrative with floating footnoted references, pull quotes, published period accounts of the artist’s work, while various primary source materials, recollections and other historical snippets simultaneously occupy the same space on each crisply deigned page.
At first this decentering device seems foreign and overpowering, but the strong, consistent layout locks in eventually to do its job. It uproots and refocuses our attention to style, genre, and the relationship of image making to communication – something Model spent the most productive period of her life concerned with.
The period 1940 to 1947 was the most prolific of her life. She photographed Wall Street, Battery Park, Reflections, Running Legs, pedestrians on Fifth Avenue, night clubs, Broadway, the Bowery, settlement houses, circuses, theater rehearsals, radio shows, and jazz and stadium concerts (for the Office of War Information), and produced numerous assignments for Harper’s Bazaar.
I found that America was the country par excellence, of making images of everybody, everything . . . glamour, the image of our image – that is my project . . . Some twenty years later she would synthesize her photographic work as an exploration of ‘glamour’ and an examination of the ‘hidden face.’ Naturally, an investigation of both implied a look at their reverses, anti-glamour, and the mask.
Ann Thomas reveals the mesh between the artist’s commissioned assignments and her concerns about the artfulness of representation. Through the historical samplings of evidence and conjecture, she sets a rhythm for the audience to step through the different movements of this photographer’s life project, illustrating how Model enlisted the camera as an instrument of detection. In this exhibition, the coda of Model’s work remains as ambiguous as it is powerful – a means of visual disclosure rather than foreclosure.