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A Master of Photography, a Mistress of Weston

A Review of Tina Modotti (Aperture Masters of Photography), New York: Aperture, 1999, 96pp.

This very handsomely printed volume by Aperture of Tina Modotti’s work presents an eclectic collection of her photographs, mostly taken in the mid-to-late 1920s in Mexico. Italian-born, Modotti emigrated to the United States, and then to Mexico, during which time she had an extended affair with famed photographer Edward Weston, for whom Modotti also modeled for his nude studies. Partially through Weston's influence, model and actress Tina turned her talents to photography, and the world has been better for it.

Because of her contact with other artists in Mexico, including Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo, Modotti's photographic interests spread far afield. Thus, while her work lacks the singular vision of Weston's, her shrugging the cloak of purism revealed instead a versatile photographer and artist. Personally, I find her work more enjoyable than Weston's, though her career was much more short-lived.

Unfortunately for the world, political unrest and circumstances forced her to flee to Soviet Russia. An avowed communist, Modotti spent her time after 1931 helping political dissidents throughout Europe and later aided the Republicans in the Spanish Civil War. Because the rigid Stalinist regime had no use for her highly-stylized photography, she put her camera down upon arriving in Russia and never picked it up again.

In 1939, she slipped back into Mexico, from which she had been forcibly exiled, but in early 1942, died of a purported heart attack, just as she was planning to resume her photography.

Many of Modotti's photographs would be regarded as "derivative" by some of today's more cynical critics. Examples include plates of Jean Charlot, 1924 (reminiscent of August Sander), Roses, 1925 (see painter Georgia O'Keefe), Police puppets, 1929 (Man Ray), Mella's typewriter, 1928 (Albert Renger-Patzsch), and Wine Glasses, 1925 (Laszlo Moholy-Nagy). Modotti's photographs themselves are nonetheless strikingly graphic and uniformly excellent.

Other photographs in this book, particularly here women of Tehuantepec bear her stamp alone, and her photographs of Mexican laborers and sundry elements of the social landscape, such as photographs of telephone wires and posters predate work in a similar vein by Walker Evans. Clearly, Modotti was quite an influence on the quintessential American photographer.

If only Modotti had been a greedy capitalist instead of a selfless communist, then she would have left so much more material for posterity. As it stands, though, her body of work is a testament to a great creative mind.

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