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Tina Modotti & Edward Weston: The Mexico Years.

Tina Modotti & Edward

Weston: The Mexico Years

Sarah M. Lowe.

Merrell, 2004.

Tina Modotti

Margaret Hooks.

Phaidon, 2005.

Tina Modotti's career as a photographer lasted six or seven years depending on how it is calculated, but in Mexico, where she did most of her work, she exercised an influence that still endures. In the United States, she has sometimes been dismissed as a talented student of the quintessential modernist photographer Edward Weston. Today, however, Modotti's work is widely admired for its amalgamation of a powerful abstract vision with profoundly humanistic values. Sarah M. Lowe's 1995 retrospective of Modotti at the Philadelphia Museum of Art 1 was a key factor in the growing recognition of this significant and fascinating twentieth-century artist. In 2004 Lowe published a biography of Weston. It seems appropriate that Lowe would then bring the two colleagues and lovers in life together in an exhibition. She organized it for London's Barbican Art Gallery.

In her extended catalogue essay for the Barbican show, Lowe avoids repeating herself as she barely sketches in Modotti's and Weston's lives and careers before and after the 1920s, the decade in which they lived and worked together or exchanged work and critiques with one another by mail. The first years in Mexico were especially rich. Modotti became a successful professional photographer and Weston moved from a romantic pictorialism into the highly formal yet mysteriously animistic images for which he is best known. Although Lowe necessarily discusses politics, love affairs, and many wide-ranging art matters, she is most concerned with the working relationship between the two artists and their individual dialogues with the culture, people and land of Mexico. Modotti and Weston changed Mexican photography and Mexico changed them decisively.


Born in Italy, Tina Modotti (1896-1942) met the brilliant, established photographer Edward Weston (1886-1958) in the artistic milieu of California. A former actress on stage and in silent films, she modeled for Weston in 1921, and, although both were married to others, they began an affair. Modotti's husband, a batik artist and painter, went to Mexico in 1922, seeking exhibition opportunities for himself and for Weston. There, he contracted smallpox and died a few days after Modotti arrived. In 1923, Weston and Modotti returned to Mexico together to live a life of freedom. At Weston's suggestion, they agreed that their relationship would not be monogamous. More importantly, they agreed that Weston would teach Modotti photography in return for her assistance in the studio. The process, using a large view camera, was elaborate and painstaking. "Both printed on platinum and palladium paper--imported from England--for their finished work. This paper required a contact print of a negative the same size as the final image, and placing the negative on top of the paper, both Modotti and Weston took their work outside and exposed the photosensitive paper in the sunlight" (19). In 1924, they hung their work together in a group exhibition, Modotti's first show

On their arrival in Mexico, Weston's photography and modernist aesthetic attracted interest. The couple joined a cosmopolitan artistic community, which included Diego Rivera, Jose Clemente Orozco, David Alfaro Siqueiros, Jean Charlot and D.H. Lawrence. Weston and, later, Modotti made a number of striking portraits of acquaintances. Modotti made few photographs of Weston. Perhaps this choice reflected Weston's own anti-expressionist aesthetic philosophy or Modotti's lack of confidence in her newly acquired skills. Later, at a time when she was earning money for commissioned portraits, she photographed Cuban Julio Antonio Mella (1928), perhaps her greatest love, with open admiration for his strength and beauty. Her best-known picture of Weston toting a camera with amusing self-importance is neither flattering nor an accurate character study but, rather, a shared joke. Weston, in contrast, frequently used Modotti both as a nude model for abstract figure studies and as a portrait subject. His 1924 sequence, Tina Reciting, in which anguish and tenderness suffuse Modotti's face, a pale shape isolated by shadows, is one of his most affecting.

During the period of their association, Modotti and Weston struggled individually with questions regarding the photographer's mission. In 1927, Modotti, whose family had a history of socialist politics, joined the Communist Party. Weston believed that photography should never serve a cause and that the photographer should dedicate what he called his "entirely impersonal" work solely to art (28).

Modotti agreed in theory. Yet, she believed in social action as much as she believed in perfect prints. Eventually, it became impossible to have both. Lowe says, "[E]ven when she gave up photography in 1930, it was because she could not keep up the commitment to quality that she and Weston valued" (28). After Weston's return to California in 1924, he discovered in the cool porcelain convolutions of a toilet the same beauty he found in the nude, writing "[H]ere was every sensuousness of the 'human form divine' but minus the imperfections" (28). The photographs do have a beauty, but one knows with certainty that the woman who photographed lush roses, fat nursing babies, and the hands of toiling peasants would never have become aesthetically enamored of a toilet. Weston, for his part, would never have composed Modotti's elegant iconic 1927 still lifes of bandoliers, guitars, sickles, and sombreros (Fig. 1), symbolizing Mexican Communism.

Often Weston's and Modotti's best work seems to have its genesis in their unique but equally irresolvable inner struggles relating to photography's proper role as an art form. Lowe believes that "Weston finessed himself around the idea of personal expression by substituting the notion of emotional response" (37). In 1927, when Weston photographed shells in ways which Lowe describes as "Modern in the fact of their having been overtly arranged and removed from any 'natural context,'" Modotti, who received the prints by mail, responded with overflowing admiration and a subtle analysis: "There's something so pure and at the same time so perverse about [the shell pictures]--they contain both the innocence of natural things and the morbidity of a sophisticated distorted mind" (38).

Modotti "rededicated herself to photography" in 1926, but, like much of her subsequent work, Workers Parade, taken on May Day of that year effectively expresses a double vision, as it records with equal power the compelling political force of labor and the abstract patterning of workers' sombreros. Lowe aptly describes Modotti's pictures of workers, such as the undated Untitled (Four Women Doing Laundry) or Untitled (Feet in Sandals), as "visceral and intellectual at once, telling a quick story about the lives of the peasants" (30).

In 1926 Weston returned to Mexico to execute a commission to illustrate a book on Mexican decorative art. He traveled through the country with his fourteen-year-old son Brett (who began his own career as a photographer at this time) and Modotti as his assistant and translator. Though many fine photographs resulted from this trip, Weston's and Modotti's romantic association was ending. Lowe draws from Weston's Daybooks entries recording his bitterness. "'The leaving of Mexico will be remembered for the leaving of Tina,' Weston wrote on the train. Their paths diverged here. Weston went on to pursue art for art's sake, while Modotti continued to merge her desire to make art with her need for political action" (30).

The two artists continued to correspond and to exchange prints (Modotti's dissemination of her photographs of murals was crucial in publicizing the Mexican mural movement). "Their genuine friendship and mutual regard is evident throughout, and about a year after his departure, Modotti writes movingly of her gratitude to Weston for his "vital guidance and influence that initiated me in this work that is not only a means of livehood [sic (in Lowe's text)] but a work that I have come to love with real passion and that offers such possibilities of expression" (32-33).

Because of her unswerving commitment to Communism, Modotti's life from this point is fraught with pain, danger, and uncertainty. Her lover Mella was shot and killed as the two walked together on the street. Arrested on false charges, she was released but deported in 1929 at the same time she had her first solo show in Mexico. In Berlin, she was frustrated by advancing technology. The skills she had learned were not applicable to "a country now devoted to hand-held 35mm cameras" (35). After a peripatetic decade in Germany, Moscow, and Spain with the unsavory Italian Communist Vittorio Vidali, a liaison which endured perhaps because the two worked together for the party, both returned to Mexico. Modotti was considering a return to photography around the time of her sudden and mysterious death in a taxi in 1942. Though there is no compelling evidence, Vidali has been suspected of arranging her murder.

Meanwhile, Weston moved toward increasingly abstracted, patterned photography based on natural objects and co-founded an informal group of 'pure' photographers, exhibiting in 1932 as Group f/64. "Weston acknowledged that Mexico had been crucially important for his maturity as an artist"(40). "[W]hether or not he could admit it, Modotti was perhaps the most important artist he associated with in Mexico despite the fact that she was just beginning to find her eye. In her Weston found a photographic comrade, an artist who forged with him a Modernist aesthetic in Mexico"(39).

Lowe ends her detailed examination of both artists in 1931, around the time Modotti gave up photography. Though she illustrates Modotti's legacy in the work of two Mexican photographers, Manuel Alvarez Bravo and Mariana Yampolsky, she does not take such pains with Weston (though several of his son Brett's photographs from the 1920s are included), perhaps because Weston's influence on the history of photography is already well documented.

The reader who wishes to obtain a fuller sense of the lives of these artists might turn to Lowe's earlier Modotti catalogue and to numerous well-researched books on Weston, including his own The Daybooks of Edward Weston, available in several editions. (2) The Barbican catalogue is fully illustrated with many excellent reproductions of the artists' work, and includes a satisfying number of portraits of both (but more and better of Modotti).

Margaret Hooks's Tina Modotti is less ambitious than Lowe's 1995 catalogue, but it will be just right (and more available) for many readers. The squarish shape of the book and its slightly flexible cover are pleasant to handle. For scholars, though, it does not have a bibliography, index, or footnotes. Hooks's short biographical introduction is accurate, readable, and incorporates evocative details. For example, she reminds us that Modotti and Frida Kahlo are represented together in Rivera's mural, The Arsenal, and writes about their friendship. Modotti persuaded the younger Kahlo to join a Communist youth organization and gave her a pin with a Communist emblem. "Modotti also encouraged her to dress more soberly, and for a short while Kahlo wore a simple skirt and blouse--a style that was Modotti's hallmark when the fashion among her friends was for exotic indigenous clothing"(introduction, n.p.).

The original prints of the photographs in the Phaidon book often seem superior to those in the Barbican show catalogue, although information about Phaidon lenders is not specific. It is intriguing to compare images. Woman with Flag (1928), which Hooks identifies as "one of Modotti's few staged photographs," must have its origin in different prints. The version in Hooks's book is lighter, allowing more detail, crisper, and slightly more vertical. Hooks points out that though the unidentified model appears to be dressed as "a poor indigenous" woman, "her highly polished 'city' shoes and silk stockings belie her created identity" (35).

In general the photographs in Hooks's book have sharper details and a greater range of values, perhaps, in part, because they are printed on glazed paper. Mella's Typewriter (1928), which seems more symbolic than visually exciting in the Barbican catalogue, pops into lively focus when the scrunched edges of used typewriter ribbon are visible and the actual typing on the page is more visible. The photograph was intended to be "a psychological portrait" of Mella who "considered his typewriter a symbolic weapon, integral to the fight for liberation" (33).

Not all of the Hooks images are superior. Modotti's portrait of Mella in the Phaidon book is fuzzy and bleached compared to the wonderfully subtle print in Lowe's catalogue. And it is tightly cropped to emphasize Mella's profile; we can't see the shape of the head, neck and shoulders, all part of the Barbican version. But the Hooks soft-focus may be more intimate and sensual. This photograph (but which print?),

Hooks tells us, became a popular image of the martyred revolutionary hero (37). Hooks's detailed captions for individual photographs enhance the pleasure of her book through the additional level of accessible commentary. She is more willing than Lowe (in the Barbican catalogue) to engage with Modotti's Communist politics, and the captions allow her to analyze individual pictures in detail.

Hooks concludes that one key to Modotti's abandonment of photography "lies in the Soviet Union of 1931. ... Modotti would have had to produce only 'revolutionary' art, or face the consequences. She was too much of an artist to see her photography reduced to mere propaganda and at the same time too devoted to the Party to risk disapproval or expulsion" (introduction, n.p.).

Both books are useful additions to the literature on Tina Modotti, and Lowe's adds in a significant way to our understanding of Weston. Hooks is able to include more of Modotti's photographs, while Lowe offers the complex experience of comparing the work of two pioneers of twentieth century photography.

Robin Rice, an artist and critic, teaches at the University of the Arts in Philadelphia and is a frequent contributor to WAJ .


(1.) See Sarah M. Lowe, Tina Modotti: Photographs (New York: Harry N. Abrams, 1995).

(2.) See, for example: Edward Weston, The Daybooks of Edward Weston, California, Nancy Newhall, ed. (New York: Horizon Press, 1961).
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Title Annotation:'Tina Modotti'
Author:Rice, Robin
Publication:Woman's Art Journal
Article Type:Book review
Date:Sep 22, 2006
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