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PHOTOGRAPHY REVIEW

This year’s Model

Show captures photographer’s unsettling but influential works

“Coney Island, Standing,’’ by Lisette Model. “Exploitation is not my aim,’’ the photographer said, “revelation is.’’ “Coney Island, Standing,’’ by Lisette Model. “Exploitation is not my aim,’’ the photographer said, “revelation is.’’ (Lisette Model Foundation)
By Mark Feeney
Globe Staff / September 12, 2009

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SOUTH HADLEY - What made Lisette Model’s reputation was a series of photographs she took on the French Riviera in the 1930s. They offered an unsparing view of well-fed self-indulgence - the good life as grotesquerie - along the Promenade des Anglais. A New York newspaper published them in 1941 under the headline “Why France Fell.’’

There is no small irony in Model’s becoming famous in such a fashion. So much of the force of her photographs, and it is considerable, stems from a refusal to moralize or judge. She patrolled the porous boundary between the (almost) forbidden and (uneasily) allowed. Patrolling is not policing, however. Model may have been one of the camera’s great recording angels. Yet she knew, as angels must, that God is the one who saves - and damns.

The only complaint to make about “Lisette Model and Her Successors,’’ which runs through Dec. 13 at the Mount Holyoke College Art Museum, is that Model’s own images make up barely a fifth of the 121 photographs in it. Model was a legendary teacher, and along with her own work the show includes pictures from 11 of her pupils, as well as from Leon Levenstein, who studied with Model’s painter husband. It’s an impressive bunch - among them are Larry Fink, who co-curated the show, Bruce Weber, and Diane Arbus - but it’s the teacher who commands attention in this classroom.

Model was born in Vienna in 1901. After moving to Paris in 1924, she took up photography. She emigrated to New York in 1938. Her timing was doubly impeccable. Leaving Paris when she did, she missed the Nazis. Living there when she did, she was present for a signal moment in photographic history. Andre Kertesz, Henri Cartier-Bresson, and Brassai were all active there - and the influence of each is evident in Model’s early work. “Man Sleeping Near the Seine,’’ from 1937, could be one of Brassai’s studies of the secret life of Paris, only transferred in this case to broad daylight. And its elegant play of curves has the compositional grace of a Kertesz.

“Composition’’ was a word Model forbade in her classes. “You are the subject,’’ she liked to tell her students, “life is the object.’’ That didn’t leave much room for such fripperies as form and design! She could afford to be so cavalier. Something like “Fifth Avenue,’’ from the late 1940s, shows what a phenomenal eye Model had. It’s a wondrously dynamic sidewalk-level view, seemingly caught on the fly. Amid multiple picture planes, horizontals and verticals snap together, just so. So do a different pair of visual elements: the mundane (pavement, flag, automobile) and stylish (a woman’s high-heeled pump, the slimness of her calf).

New York brought out something special in Model. It fed the toughness of her sensibility as Paris had not. Brassai, the great Paris recorder of the ’30s, had an essentially romantic sensibility. Weegee, the great New York recorder of the ’40s, assuredly did not. You can see the affinity with Weegee in “Fashion Show, Hotel Pierre, c. 1957.’’ Two extremely nonrunway-ready matrons appear in a tight shot looking hopelessly blase. They may be bored, but what counts is that Model’s not, and so neither are we.

The Weegee affinity’s also on display in “Coney Island, Standing.’’ There is nothing polite, refined, or even average about this extremely ample woman standing on the beach. There’s also nothing freakish, and that’s an important point. “Exploitation is not my aim,’’ Model said, “revelation is.’’ They’re words that could have served as Arbus’s epitaph, though she lacked Model’s balletic ability not to stray over the line. Prettiness held no interest for Model, but neither did ugliness. “Not flattering’’ isn’t quite the same thing as “unflattering,’’ and “unblinking’’ is very different from “winking.’’

Model once said that “investigating glamour’’ was what she did. Glamour can take many forms. And while there’s nothing conventionally glamorous about Model’s bathing beauty, there’s a heartiness and gusto to her, which, in their fleshy, straightforward way, can be even more appealing than glamour.

What may be most distinctive about Model’s work isn’t her attraction to louche subject matter, but the way she could appreciate it. Several photographs here from her former students - Peter Hujar’s rather creepy 1974 portrait of the singer Peggy Lee, for example, or Elaine Ellman’s “Spring Party, MoMA, 1979’’ - are clearly in high Model mode. Fink’s “Cote d’Azur, France, July 1988’’ looks like a conscious hommage. But there’s an emotional severity to them that takes Model’s attitude and calcifies it. The only photograph in the show with joy in it - other than Model’s Coney Islander - is Raymond Jacobs’s 1954 portrait of a shirtless Louis Armstrong. It’s quite glorious, actually, and a reminder that emphasizing life’s dark side at the expense of the light can be as artistically perilous as the reverse.

Maybe it’s generational. Where Model sought out unsettling subject matter as an act of discovery, her pupils (reflecting the culture at large) sought it out to shock, mock, or both. It’s worth noting that the strongest pictures in the show, Model’s excepted, are Levenstein’s. Just a decade younger than Model, he was effectively her peer. There’s a toughness to his photographs, and a vigor, that define hers, too. Our elders didn’t necessarily know more than we do. They were, however, less knowing.

Mark Feeney can be reached at mfeeney@globe.com.

LISETTE MODEL AND HER SUCCESSORS

At: Mount Holyoke College Art Museum, Lower Lake Road, South Hadley, through Dec. 13. 413-538-2245, www.mt holyoke.edu/artmuseum

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