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.
LRB 6 January 1994 | PDF Download