Élise Amélie Félicie Stern was born in 1901 in Vienna, in a wealthy family of refined tastes. Her father later changed their surname from Stern to Seybert, fearful of the reprisals they might suffer because of their Jewish roots. In her youth, Élise attended the Schwarzwald girls’ school. Among her teachers were Arnold Schönberg, Oskar Kokoschka and Adolf Loos. Her initial training focused on music and singing.
Following the death of her father in 1926, the family moved to Nice in France. Lisette moved to Paris to concentrate on her career as a singer with the famous performer Marya Freund. She struck up a friendship with the female photographers Rogi André and Florence Henri, and began psychoanalysis that would continue until 1993 when she gave up music for good. She began to paint and became interested in photography thanks to her sister Olga’s influence. She then acquired her first camera and an enlarger.
She started her first series in Nice in 1934: Promenade des Anglais, with a selection of these images being published a short while later in the North American communist magazine Regards. She then met Evsa Model, a Jewish, Russian-born constructivist artist and a member of the artistic group Cercle et Carré and they married in 1937. They both left for New York together the following year; as a result of the impending war in Europe she settled in the city and began her Reflections series. In 1940, Ralph Steiner, editor of the magazine PM’s Weekly, hired her as a photographer, while the recently created photography department at the MoMA acquired some of her works and included them in the exhibition entitled Sixty Photographs: A Survey of Camera Aesthetics together with artists such as Helen Levitt, Berenice Abbott, Ansel Adams and Man Ray.
The 1940s proved to be a particularly productive decade for Model: she had her first solo exhibition at the Photo League (1941) and began a prolific professional relationship with the magazine Harper’s Bazaar. While she obtained American citizenship, some members of her family, such as her brother Salvátor, were deported to concentration camps. In 1946 she came into contact with the East coast photographic community and took a series of portraits of famous people (from Robert Oppenheimer to Salvador Dalí, Imogen Cunningham and Dorothea Lange) which would be published under the title The Intellectual Climate of San Francisco.
In 1949 she began to teach classes on documentary photography at the California School of Fine Arts, a teaching practice which would continue for the rest of her life in subsequent centers such as the New School for Social Research at Columbia University. Some of her most famous students were the future photographers Diane Arbus, Peter Hujar and Larry Fink. Around the same time she also began to photograph the jazz world. She was investigated by the House Un-American Activities Committee, which led to a break in her career; in 1955 she left Harper’s Bazaar and soon stopped developing negatives. She did not return to her normal developing and enlarging of prints until 1974. In 1965 she received a Guggenheim fellowship for the project entitled Glamour: The Image of Our Image, and soon after she traveled to Italy to photograph the caves of Tuscany and Sicily. In 1969 she was appointed as an honorary member of the American Association of Magazine Photographers.
The photographer August Sander’s grandson Gerhard Sander became a gallery owner and someone she could trust in the photo lab to print new copies of her work from 1975 onwards. A year later her husband Evsa died. In 1981 the exhibition entitled Lisette Model: A Retrospective was staged in the New Orleans Museum of Art and she received an Honorary doctorate from the New School together with her close friend Berenice Abbott. The following year she received the Gold Medal from the City of Paris. In 1983, a few weeks after giving her last lecture at Haverfood College, she died at the age of 82.
After her death, the National Gallery of Canada, in Ottawa, took charge of her legacy and dedicated a major retrospective to her in 1990. A few years later, the Fundación Aperture organized the Lisette Model and Her Successors exhibition (2008), and the following year Fundación Mapfre staged an extensive exhibition of her work in Madrid, which subsequently toured to the Jeu de Paume in Paris.