This essay examines the portrait work of the Austrian-American photographer Lisette Model, with a special focus on her representation of the American lumpenproletariat in the Reflections series, Model's first after coming to New York in 1938 as an Austrian-French Jewish émigré, and in her Bowery portrait series. Within the history of American postwar photography, Model stands as a salient figure, a pioneer who located and defined the issues, options, and contradictions of photography as an artistic practice in the “New York School of photography.” Model's rendering of her subjects as eccentric, fantastic, and spectacular in their expressions and emotions propelled the émigré photographer with meager experience into a central position in the making of mid-century American photography, both social-documentary and commercial. Moving beyond the localized context of postwar American photography in which Model's work has been largely investigated, this essay argues for an understanding of Model's New York portraits as being shaped and informed by the photographer's consideration of the crisis of history and the violence enacted by fascism in Europe, as well as the historical condition of exile. One of the essay's claims is that Model revitalized a kind of pleasurable violence, one that enacts a sense of excessive bodily dynamism, often to the point of self-destruction, on the bodies of the American lumpenproletariat at leisure, in order both to come to terms with the role of the lumpenproletariat as the central subject of fascist politics and aesthetics in the Old World and to put pressure on the conditions of the mass subject and mass politics in the New World.

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