LINCOLN — “Lotte Jacobi, Lisette Model: Urban Camera” is small in size. It runs through Sept. 11 at the deCordova Sculpture Park and Museum. The show consists of just 34 black-and-white photographs: 22 by Jacobi, 12 by Model.
Yet size matters here — or sizes do — almost as much as the images’ unfailing interest and consistent quality. That’s because curator Helen Lewandowski has arranged the show as a kind of dimensional duet. All but one of the Jacobis are a jewel-like 3½ inches by 5½ inches (or vice versa), which makes the Models, all of which are 20 inches by 16 inches (or vice versa), seem garguantuan.
Gargantuanism, even if only comparative, is fitting. So many of Model’s best pictures revel in the grotesque. It comes as no surprise that one of her students was Diane Arbus. If a Coney Island bather were any fleshier the sand beneath her feet might give way. The figure in “Woman With Veil, San Francisco” resembles a dolled-up prune. A Riviera sunbather has a look that’s so lizardy and louche it’s more hilarious than menacing. The fact that he’s wearing a three-piece suit simply adds to the overall oddity.
Model (1901-1983) and Jacobi (1896-1990) were contemporaries. Both hailed from Mitteleuropa (Vienna and Berlin, respectively) and immigrated to the United States in the ’30s. Model was largely self-taught. Jacobi came from a long line of photographers. The family studio, Atelier Jacobi, dated to the 1840s.
That difference in background may have something to do with the relative rawness of Model’s work — she’s a sensibility more than a style — and the finesse, even elegance of Jacobi’s. She’s the reverse. Jacobi’s best known for her portraits of Weimar Era performers, such as the actors Peter Lorre and Franz Lederer, and singer-actress Lotte Lenya. They strike an arresting balance between persona and personality.
Those aren’t in the show, but ones that are underscore Jacobi’s skill as a portraitist. If there’s such a thing as fierce serenity, that’s what she captures in the artist Käthe Kollwitz. The comedian Karl Valentin mugs for the camera so violently it’s as if he’s auditioning for Model. A very different sort of portrait — since it’s not one, per se — shows the actress Lil Dagover with her dog. They sit in the front seat of a car. She looks at the lens. He stares straight ahead. Her pale face and white coat (is it ermine?) contrast marvelously with the canine’s dark silhouette beside her.
Jacobi’s Berlin period generally gets more attention than her time in America. More than half of the photographs at the deCordova belong to the latter. Who knew that the poet May Sarton sat for her, in 1970? Or that the Gardner Museum commissioned her to photograph the museum, in 1965? She was as good at documenting famous buildings in the States as she’d been with famous faces in Berlin. A moodily atmospheric study of Rockefeller Center, from 1950, manages to combine spookiness and elegance. It also chimes with a Model photograph of Rockefeller Center, taken five years earlier.
Arthur C. Danto, that most intellectually probing of art critics, once noted that “Reality is the photographer’s greatest collaborator.” Photographic abstractions are like duets attempting to go solo. The half-dozen examples here of Jacobi’s “photogenics,” as a friend called them, are an exception to that rule. “Untitled” (1948) could be a Kandinsky canvas drained of color. “Homage to Brancusi” (1950) recalls a two-dimensional version of the sculptor’s “Bird in Space.” In a sense, it chimes with Model’s Coney Island bather — which is sculptural, all right, albeit in an altogether different way.
LOTTE JACOBI, LISETTE MODEL: Urban Camera
At deCordova Sculpture Park and Museum, 51 Sandy Pond Road, Lincoln, through Sept. 11, 781-259-8355, www.decordova.org
Mark Feeney can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.