Michael Wood

  • Tina Modotti: A Fragile Life by Mildred Constantine
    Bloomsbury, 199 pp, £16.99, September 1993, ISBN 0 7475 1622 7
  • Tina Modotti: Photographer and Revolutionary by Margaret Hooks
    Pandora, 277 pp, £25.00, September 1993, ISBN 0 04 440879 X

Tina Modotti was born in Italy in 1896, emigrated to the United States in 1913, and later became a Soviet-inspired political activist in Spain. But she was a Mexican photographer, in the sense that she found her style, subjects and vocation in Mexico; leaving Mexico in 1930, she left photography too. This claim is complicated but not drastically altered by the few brilliant pictures Modotti took in Germany, notably one of a large, respectable-looking couple at the zoo, seen from the back, off-balance with excitement at their glimpse of the animal that is hidden from us in the darkness of the cage. It’s not just that Modotti photographed Mexican Indians and Mexican churches and street scenes, the work of Mexican muralists and the muralists themselves; it’s that even her relatively abstract work – lilies, roses, wine-glasses, telegraph wires, doors, the spreading steps of a stadium – belong to the intellectual and artistic climate of Mexico in the Twenties. This was a time and a place where – for artists at least – abstraction and politics were not at odds, where the eerie beauty of a bunch of roses crushed together might have something of the same melancholy dignity as an Indian child’s face. The face is not aestheticised, and the roses are not turned into allegory; but it is true that virtually all Modotti’s photographs of this period have a delicate desolation about them, as if a certain formal perfection was a way of saying what’s wrong with the world.

For a long time Modotti’s reputation was overshadowed by that of her mentor Edward Weston, and her total output of photographs was slender: four hundred images, Margaret Hooks says. But her well-known Roses (1925) sold at Sotheby’s in 1991 for $165,000, then apparently a record price for a photograph. And now here are two illustrated books about her, and an exhibition of her work at the Photographers’ Gallery. There was a legendary life, too, to go with the photographs.

Modotti’s memorable portrait of an Indian boy evokes all the sorrow and grace traditionally associated with American Indians, but also something else. The picture is taken from a low angle; the boy’s straw hat attracts the attention and cuts out a piece of the sky; the boy’s face and eyes suggest a mixture of composure and bewilderment, as if he can’t name what bothers him, saddens him. Her picture of a cactus flower called flor de manita shows the strange flower looking like a hand, with spooky, long claws for fingers, but it is also open, upturned, beseeching, waiting for alms that won’t come. I’m still trying to work out the feeling provoked by Stadium. It’s not only that the stone steps are empty and regular, receding in perspective towards the top left corner of the frame; I think it’s that the angle and the narrow shadows suggest that the circle of the stadium may never close, that this part may belong to no whole, that this is a geometrical design that could go on for ever, like a staircase in Borges or Piranesi.

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