Tina Modotti

The moody, somewhat-romanticized Tina Modotti we know through Edward Weston’s close-ups of her face, and especially through his more formal, subliminally impassioned photographs of her flesh—the seductive Eternal Feminine incarnate, the indiscreet object of desire—has no resemblance to the “portrait” of Modotti that emerges from her own hard-bitten, harshly honest photographs. The Mexican women (and men) she identifies with are peasants and workers. Though she sometimes allegorizes them, as in Misery, 1928, and Elegance and Poverty, ca. 1928, or gives them a certain stolid dignity, as in Women from Tehuantepec, ca. 1929, and Worker Reading “El Machete,” 1927, she mostly documents their suffering and rebellion against it (Woman with Flag, 1928, and Meeting of Campesinos [Stage], 1927). These works are not simply informed by empathy for the underdog but are robustly revolutionary in intent: her still lifes of Sickle, Bandolier, Guitar, 1927, and Bandolier, Corn, Guitar, 1927—it would probably offend her if I called them formal, even elegant masterpieces—constitute a communist coat of arms as well as a call to arms, as their symbolism indicates.

Modotti, an Italian who emigrated with her family to the United States, was a kind of heroine of the Revolution, as Pablo Neruda’s poem, “Tina Modotti Is Dead,” makes clear (although Neruda, like Weston, celebrates “the jewel of [her] sleeping body” more than her membership in the “people” ). She worked for the Comintern in Moscow and elsewhere and fought for the Republic in the Spanish Civil War. Nearly all her photographs were made in Mexico, where she first visited in 1922, and lived from 1923 to 1930 and 1939 to 1942, the year of her death at 46. She considered herself “a photographer, nothing more. . . . I try to produce not art but honest photographs, without distortions or manipulations.” Modotti is a connoisseur of black and white, deftly using it to bring out textures; in her photographs, secondary features, which could seem beside the point, given her social subject matter, receive esthetic and emotional primacy. Thus, in Misery and Elegance and Poverty the human figures, for all their air of abandonment, are peculiarly less gripping—more stagey—than the irregular worn surface of the stone of the walls behind them and the sidewalks on which they rest. She renders the textures of these surfaces with an uncanny exactitude that makes them all the more ominous and grand, an emblem of inhumanity and indifference, confirmed by the way they dwarf the figures. Doorway and Steps, 1924, in which no figures appear, is perhaps the climax of Modotti’s fascination with texture and chiaroscuro (I think Modotti’s model for the photograph can be found in the silent films she acted in, such as The Tiger’s Coat, 1920. Her figures and scenes have the static, “posed” quality typical of those in such films, fortunately lacking their air of affectation but full of their carrying power—their instant, if simplistic, communication.)

Modotti, like Weston, has been associated with the Neue Sachlichkeit (New Objectivity) of Albert Renger-Patzsch, but in fact neither of these photographers took a neutral stance toward their subject matter, as has been suggested. In short, Modotti’s photographs are masterpieces of restraint rather than matter-of-fact representations of social reality. Her objectivity is less straightforward—reportorial—than it seems: she wants to reveal the truth of matter more than that of society. Thus, Mella’s Typewriter, 1928, and Telephone Wires, Mexico, 1925, have more to do with the detail of things than with modern technology. They are abstract epiphanies of geometry and black and white surfaces—material detail that is radicalized into almost-metaphysical relevance by being brought closer to the eye than the eye can bear.

Donald Kuspit