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Écritures dans les Amériques au féminin

Dante Barrientos-Tecun
Anne Reynes-Delobel

Écritures féminines transnationales et porosité générique

Local Apertures and Errant Visions

Tina Modotti’s Mexican Modernism

Audrey Goodman


Cet article retrace l’itinéraire de Tina Modotti dans les années 1920. De ses débuts en tant qu’actrice et modèle à San Francisco et Los Angeles jusqu’à son émergence comme photographe et militante politique à Mexico, Modotti, à l’instar d’autres femmes artistes nord-américaines à cette période, a non seulement participé au modernisme métropolitain mais également contribué à le redéfinir. On s’intéressera en premier lieu à la façon dont elle n’a cessé de remettre en question les frontières (géographiques, sociales et politiques), avant et pendant sa période mexicaine. On observera ensuite la manière dont elle a su se servir de son expérience de la scène pour pénétrer dans l’intimité de ses sujets. Sa pratique photographique révèle, d’une part, une réponse complexe à sa propre expérience de modèle et d’actrice évoluant sous le regard et l’objectif d’artistes en grande partie masculins. D’autre part, elle livre le témoignage d’un contact direct avec des gens et des lieux en marge de l’histoire officielle de la modernité mexicaine : paysans, ouvriers et femmes métis ou indigènes. Il s’agira donc avant tout de comprendre comment Modotti a converti son expérience de performer en une pratique esthétique lui permettant de jeter un regard oblique sur les conventions culturelles et genrées dans le but de les déjouer, voire de les dépasser.

Texte intégral

  • 1 For a review of new scholarship in the field, see Mao and Walkowitz, “The New Modernist Studies.”

1Close investigation of modern art in any North American metropolis in the 1920s reveals modernism’s multiplicity, its fascination with cultural difference, and its nuanced expressions of the networks that link locality and nationality. Especially vibrant communities of artists and scholars promoted collaboration between fields and genres in Los Angeles, Mexico City, and New York; in these “crucibles,” as Raymond Williams famously called them, we see the “restless and often directly competitive sequence of innovations and experiments,” as well as a range of responses to modernity, from an “eager embrace” to “conscious options for past or exotic cultures as sources or at least as fragments against the modern world” (Williams 43). More recent attention to the spaces of twentieth-century modernism has substantially extended and complicated our understanding of its uneven temporalities. Following the lead of Andreas Huyssen and others, scholars invested in “new modernist studies” and those interested in methodologies of comparative and transnational literary study of this period now turn a “critical focus on alternative modernities with their deep histories and local contingencies” (Huyssen 8)1. In her transnational investigation of North American modernism, for example, Rachel Adams argues for the notion of Mexico City in the 1920s as a “South Bank” where women worked as cultural producers and promoters of mexicanidad, a newly constructed concept of Mexican identity; she argues that such a focus on bohemian formations south of the U.S. border promises to open up “unrecognized circuits of cultural contact” (Adams 101). Studies of artistic circles focused explicitly on a single metropolis, such as Kathleen Pyne’s analysis of women of the Steiglitz circle in New York and Beth Warren’s Artful Lives: Edward Weston, Margrethe Mather, and the Bohemians of Los Angeles, complement wide-ranging investigations with detailed research into intricate local relationships that yield new understandings of networks of collaboration and practices of cultural production.

2Such active and ongoing challenges to conceptualize and interrogate the multiple temporalities and geographies of American modernism also provide new opportunities to consider how women writers and photographers in California and Mexico constructed their own professional identities within and against such rapidly shifting cultural fields. Often working beside or in response to male artists long assumed to be responsible for producing the images that came to define photographic modernism in New York, San Francisco, Los Angeles, and Mexico City, women including Anne Brigman, Tina Modotti, Anita Brenner, Katherine Anne Porter, Frances Toor, Margrethe Mather, and Imogen Cunningham adapted and shifted modernist ways of seeing by foregrounding their own position in relation to their social and cultural environments while resisting masculine ideals of feminine beauty and identity. Perhaps because they cultivated deep attachments while in many cases living in exile from their native regions, they could recognize the role that everyday places and traditional work played in constituting culture, even in rapidly modernizing metropolises.

3Here I examine Tina Modotti’s emergence as a photographer in the 1920s, charting her progress from actress and model in San Francisco and Los Angeles to photographer and political activist in Mexico City, as an example of how women artists in North America in this period participated in and reconfigured metropolitan modernism. While her work is often considered together with that of her mentor and lover Edward Weston as setting off “a photographic revolution” in Mexico at this time (Gallo 32), it has increasingly been analyzed independently in terms of its engagement with modern technology, post-revolutionary culture, and sexual politics. Substantial scholarship on these aspects of Modotti’s work by Andrea Noble, Margaret Hooks, Leonard Folgarait, Rubén Gallo, and Roberto Tejada, among others, constitutes the foundation for this essay, which necessarily limits the scope of inquiry to foreground the relation between mobility and aesthetic vision. I focus first on Modotti’s relentless movement and boundary crossings (geographic, social, and political) before and during her Mexico years. Then I examine how she transformed her experience as a performer and negotiated degrees of access and intimacy to her subjects. I argue that her photography was a complex, if refracted, response to her own history as a woman accustomed to displaying her beauty and adapting her identity on stage, for the camera, and for male-dominated groups of artists; it was also a direct response to her first-hand encounters with the people and places not fully incorporated into official visions of Mexican modernity: farmers, workers, and mestiza or indigenous women. In her study Errant Modernism, Esther Gabara suggests that “ethos” had a double meaning in Latin America in this period, referring to “a habit or way of life” that is simultaneously “errant and located,” producing both a “modernist aesthetics” and “an ethical mode of living in the world” (Gabara 45). I am especially interested here in how Modotti reversed and transformed her role as performer into an aesthetic ethos of looking askance at (or behind, or beyond) conventional gendered and cultural appearances.

4The defining elements of Modotti’s photography were close attention to the form and symbolic value of objects, whether mechanical or traditional; oblique perspectives on urban and other public spaces; and seemingly casual observation of ordinary people in their local environments. While generally promoting the “straight” style learned from Weston and advocating “not art but honest photographs,” she also came to articulate an understanding of photography that recognized its unique ability to record the contradictions of the present, accepted the limits of the situated observer, and asked the viewer to supply “sensibility and understanding” (“On Photography” 196, 198). Taken together, the images she produced between 1924 and 1929 and her published statement “On Photography” from 1929 reveal not only “the gap that existed between revolutionary rhetoric and reality” (Mraz 83) but also the process of looking at the conditions and contradictions of everyday life in and beyond post-revolutionary Mexico City. By engaging photography as a technological process intertwined with the gendered and located identity of the artist, Modotti also provided a model for women photographers such Lola Álvarez Bravo and Graciela Iturbide, both of whom explicitly used self-reflexivity and irony as strategies for representing and critiquing Mexican modernity.

From California to Mexico City

5According to Modotti’s most thorough biographer, Letizia Argentieri, one “key to understanding Tina’s later commitments (personal or political) is found in [her] California years” (Argentieri 15), when her varied cultural encounters “set the tone for her future choices” as an artist and a revolutionary (Argentieri 44). A first-generation immigrant from Udine, Italy who joined her family at the center of San Francisco’s Italian colony in 1913, Modotti first worked as a seamstress and model for I. Magnin; then she took on acting roles in 1917 and 1918 at the San Francisco Liberty Theater and the Washington Theater; she also performed in Ibsen’s Ghosts and Niccodemi’s La Nemica. In 1918, she met Roubaix de L’Abrie Richey, a self-invented, flamboyant artist, and with him Modotti quickly found her own way into San Francisco’s community of artists and performers. They lived in North Beach, a cultured and hard-working immigrant community where opera thrived: in 1905, the legendary Neapolitan opera singer Antonietta Pisanelli performed at the Apollo Theater; Enrico Caruso’s made his first performance at the Tivoli Opera House, located downtown just north of Market Street; and the Circolo Familiare Pisanelli quickly became the neighborhood’s “dominant social institution” (Argentieri 34). When Modotti “married” Robo in Santa Barbara to please Richey’s family, the Italian newspaper L’Italia reported the wedding in order to account for her lack of recent roles. Richey, meanwhile, painted and wrote poetry, seeking the best medium for his aesthetic ideas.

6Modotti and Richey moved to Los Angeles in 1918, seeking new opportunities for their creative work. There the couple joined informal gatherings at architect Rudolf Schindler’s home and also formed their own creative circle, holding frequent soirées that attracted artists, performers, and photographers. Together the Richeys “gathered around them a circle of bohemian spirits, some from the cultured Mexican community of Los Angeles,” such as photographer Edward Weston, who had recently transformed himself into “a fashionable bohemian,” wearing “knickers, a soft blouson shirt […], a pince-nez, walking stick, and cape” (Warren 2001, 15); dramatist, film and photography critic Sadakichi Hartmann; British poet John Cooper Powys; and Mexican poet Ricardo Gómez Robelo, who became the Director of the Department of Fine Arts in Mexico under the supervision of José Vasconcelos. They thrived as members of Los Angeles’s fluid community of artists and experimented with many forms of expression. Richey created stylized drawings and adapted traditional batik techniques to design his own fabrics, “tapestries of illusion” used on film sets (Hooks 35). Modotti herself made costumes and styled dolls; she also pursued her acting career, working at MGM and performing in three silent movies between 1920 and 1922, most notably in the role of a Mexican servant who impersonates her dead Scottish mistress in The Tiger’s Coat (1920). While Modotti did not write or practice photography during this period, as she inhabited the generative environment of Los Angeles and absorbed the city’s literary and visual cultures, she had her first critical encounter with Weston, with whom she quickly developed a powerful intimacy expressed in mutual love letters and Weston’s photographical portraits of her. Thus Modotti was initiated into a practice of photography in which technical mastery was intertwined with a gendered and erotically charged environment; she and Weston yielded to their mutual attraction while he exerted control of the camera.

  • 2 To view Weston’s portraits of Modotti, consult the online archive at the Center for Creative Photog (...)

7This first, heady stage of her relationship with Weston also allowed her to test her own power to perform as different versions of herself. In the soft-focus studio portrait of 1921, Head of an Italian Girl, Modotti plays the part of willing and vulnerable dreamer, with her eyes closed and head tilted back2. Weston chose in this image to emphasize the softness and luminosity of her skin and the interplay between the curves of her eyebrows, nose, and lips in three-quarters profile; it is an undeniably sensuous portrait that entrusts Modotti’s exposed cheek, throat, and collarbone to the viewer’s gaze. In front of Weston’s camera in Los Angeles and Mexico City, Modotti would come to play many roles, from exotic actress to poet to seductive sunbather. Consider, for example, the striking sequence of nudes Weston made in 1924 on the roof of their building, including Nude on Azotea (Pyramid of Light), Tina on the Azotea, and Tina on the Azotea with Kimono. These photographs further flaunted the couple’s intimacy and tested the boundaries between the photographer’s knowledge of his model’s body, his private vision of feminine beauty, and Modotti’s simultaneous display and concealment of her body’s power. Such experience exposing herself while withholding her face or gaze, combined with Weston’s own pursuit of technical mastery, may have shaped Modotti’s later desires to exert control over her own image, to protect her subjects from overexposure, and to resist those photographic practices which involved “distortions or manipulations” (“On Photography” 196).

  • 3 For a thorough analysis of this movement and Modotti’s role in it, see Rashkin, especially p. 86-90

8In September, 1921 Modotti chose to follow Robo to Mexico City, where she discovered “a place of spectacle, where images and events present themselves without coaxing or scripting,” as well as the mixture of classes and culture that would form her artistic and political convictions (Folgarait 35). As many studies of Modotti note, the active social life, the stimulating associations with the Mexican and European artists she discovered when she returned with Weston in 1923, and the intense political sphere of the Communist Party all contributed to her personal, artistic, and political development. Weston and Modotti met filmmaker Roberto Trumbull, muralists Xavier Guerrero and Diego Rivera, and painter Frida Kahlo during their first months living just outside the city, in Tacubaya; when they moved to the central Colonia Juárez, set up a successful studio, and prepared Weston’s first exhibit at the Aztec Land gallery, they secured their “debut into the vibrant whirl of Mexico City bohemia,” according to Hooks (Folgarait 76). Among the visitors to the exhibit were Dr. Atl and Nahui Olin (painters and writers central to the Estridentista movement); Rafael Salas; artist Rufino Tamayo; painter and sculptor Germán Cueto and his wife Lola (founder of a collective art workshop); and the Riveras, who typically held hot chocolate parties in the early evening. At other salons they met French painter Jean Charlot. Soon they hosted their own fiestas on Saturday nights, attracting guests from many countries and often leading the way to a night of dancing. They also socialized and worked with many Americans, including Frances Toor, an anthropologist and folk art expert who had studied at U.C. Berkeley and founded Mexican Folkways, and Carleton Beals, correspondent for The Nation; all were part of “a greater North American or global community” (Adams 147) that Charlot affectionately referred to “the familia” and that Modotti called “our salon.” Other new influences also included the avant-garde Mexican writers who played with graphic and print elements in their work. Following the architectural studies and still lifes that Modotti produced in 1924-1925, we find evidence of mutual fascination between Modotti and the Estridentista writers Germán List Arzubide, Manuel Maples Arce, and Luis Quintanilla, all of whom were committed to exploring states of alienation heightened in the urban environment and the effects of the machine. Members of this vanguard movement invited her to collaborate on experimental approaches to typesetting, produce images with graphic components, and perform in new ways; Modotti worked with Arzubide to provide images for his books and acted in a play by Quintanilla3. In Mexico City, Modotti accepted the associations, intimacies, and opportunities that came her way — and that in turn shaped her perspective on the city and its mixture of cultures.

9Less emphasized in critical accounts of Modotti’s Mexico years is her association with creative women who encouraged further exploration of Mexican culture and provided models of unconventional style. She spent a great deal of time with Toor, who had remained in Mexico after teaching one session of summer school at the National University in 1922; as Hooks recounts, “in khaki trousers and heavy boots, [Toor] roamed the backroads of Mexico on foot and burro-back discovering Mexico folk art” (Hooks 93), undoubtedly setting a model for Modotti when she started to travel throughout the country with Weston to produce about 200 photographs of traditional religious and folk art for Anita Brenner’s book, Idols Behind Altars. The project took Modotti and Weston to Puebla and Oaxaca for shooting; then back to Mexico City to print; then west to Michoacán. While the photographs in the book are not credited, Brenner and Weston both acknowledged Modotti’s essential role in photographing, finding art objects, and bargaining and translating during their travels. Hooks describes the active role Modotti played throughout, including “playing her Italian identity to the full to foil the vendors’ anti-American sentiment” (Hooks 123). Modotti’s association with Brenner on this project also led Toor to secure her a role as “contributing editor” to Mexican Folkways, founded in 1925. Later Modotti met Luz Ardizana, a committed communist who typically wore men’s trousers and work shirts and accompanied her to political rallies around the country (Hooks 158-159). During this period Modotti both continued to pose as a model (for Rivera’s murals, as well as for Weston’s portraits) and refashioned her public appearance, sometimes wearing the dress of a china poblana, at other times the uniform of a suffragette — “dark tailored skirt, high-necked silk blouse with a man’s black tie” (Hooks 113) — or, when she was working hard in her studio, blue overalls. Such mobility and adaptability in terms of association and identity was already suggested in a photograph Weston took in 1924, Tina Modotti and Miguel Covarrubias, in which Modotti leans against the wall of a rooftop terrace, holding her camera loosely in her left hand. As Gallo points out, in this image Modotti performs her newly assumed identity through her casual pose; the camera seems merely an extension of her body, a means of expression secondary to talking (Gallo 34-37).

10From the start of her time in Mexico City, out of the necessity of supporting herself, Modotti learned not only how to manage a darkroom and but also how to practice photography in response to her new environment. Whereas Robo had come to Mexico “attracted by the beauty and the charm of the past,” seeking to sustain the aestheticized perspective he had previous expressed through batik designs and a volume of romantic poetry illustrated with woodcuts (The Book of Robo), Modotti did not idealize Mexico’s cultural heritage. After Robo’s sudden death she embraced the country’s present mixture of indigenous, traditional, and modern cultures. And whereas Weston’s modernist photography expressed an abstract appreciation of Mexican symbols or folk objects, in the hands of Modotti photography came to involve an ongoing and intertwined process of formal experimentation and social observation and critique. The growing international market for Mexican art (folk and pre-Columbian, as well as the famous murals by Rivera, Orozco and Siquieros) created a need for photographs of this rich body of work, which Modotti provided. Due to the expansion of artistic photography in mass media (through the form of photo-essays in El Universal, for example) and the incorporation of visual images in El Machete, the Mexican Community Party newspaper, Modotti also had opportunities to experiment with ways her images could function as tools for raising political consciousness for different classes of viewers and perhaps constitute a universal language of social critique. As she proclaimed in “Photography as Weapon,”

Nothing is more convincing and eloquent as what the eye can see. However accurately words might describe an armed police raid on a worker’s demonstration, a worker’s body mangled by mounted police, or a negro lynched by brutal henchmen, no report or written form will be quite as convincing as […] a photograph [which] will be understood in all countries and by all nations just like moving pictures, regardless of the language of the legend or titles appended. (“Photography as Weapon,” 289)

11In this statement, Modotti links her ethical belief that local acts of oppression and injustice must be exposed to a global audience (to viewers in “all countries” and “all nations”) with her practice of photography, conceived here as an art that promotes understanding through strategic visualization. The work that she produced in Mexico in the mid- to late-1920s reveals her sustained effort to find a visual language commensurate with the intensity and complexity of her emerging political convictions.

  • 4 To view the photographs by Modotti cited throughout this article, consult the online archive at the (...)

12Some of Modotti’s most celebrated photographs from this period dramatize the various types of beauty she saw in her newly adopted city’s built environment by looking at it from many angles and directions. For example, she photographed telephone wires from below, as if grounding the viewer’s perspective while opening up the expanse of sky above. Notable in Telephone Wires, Mexico (1925) is not only the subject (the material and technological means of linking voices and communicating in the rapidly developing metropolis) but also the perspective4. To see the wires as they converge at the bottom of the image and fan out in straight but irregularly spaced lines towards the top requires tilting either one’s head or the camera, and exposing face or aperture to the sky. The photograph invites the viewer to imagine being suspended in the atmosphere and lured through the gaps in the wires towards the seemingly more solid clouds. In contrast to the portraits Weston made of Modotti at moments when she closed her eyes to look inward, this portrait of the modern face of the city urges the viewer to elevate and expand her perspective beyond conventional limits. Lacking a figure to center the image or a building to establish a visual boundary, Telephone Wires, Mexico reorients the viewer’s gaze and reframes the horizon as an indeterminate opening in the clouds. On the other hand, Stadium, Mexico City (c. 1927) tightens the frame of vision to dramatize the structure’s classical form and its patterned contrasts of light and darkness. With the camera positioned just above the stadium steps and angled down, the stone seats curve in sections towards an imaginary point of convergence while the illuminated steps march up indefinitely, towards an edge that the viewer cannot fully see. The angle of the sun and the camera together produce an effect of monumental yet not impersonal solitude. Empty of spectators, the stadium provides a space of refuge for those who might wander in after hours. Although the photograph itself conveys the structure’s abstract, classical beauty as entirely separate from the modern metropolis, the title re-situates it within a contemporary urban environment. Both images provide the viewer access to spaces made to feel more expansive because of their angle of vision, despite their location adjacent to city streets, buildings, and crowds.

13Other photographs, such as Roofs of Mexico City and Workers’ Parade, survey the city from above; these also reconfigure urban scenes into streamlined compositions through framing and orientation. Citing images such as these, Gallo characterizes Modotti’s photography as “a radically new form of aesthetic representation” that took full advantage of the mechanical possibilities of the camera (Gallo 232). Roofs of Mexico City surveys just enough of the panorama below to reveal the tremendous variety of levels, shapes, and materials that constitute a single city building. Organized around diagonal vectors formed by walls and the edges of roofs and composed by the rectangles formed by doorways, windows, walls, and bricks, the image both offers a sense of intimacy and brings geometric coherence to an urban space fully inhabited but rarely seen. The perspective of Workers’ Parade, also photographed from a rooftop, similarly heightens the viewer’s sense of proximity to the scene below, thus creating a moment of intimate encounter within the expanse of a public demonstration. Strategically cropped to fill the frame entirely with figures, Workers’ Parade organizes the viewer’s perspective on the scene below to suggest both a common purpose and an ease of movement. Modotti creates an order in the May Day crowd through her choice of grouping, but she also captures individual movement: not all the men face in the same direction, and their straw hats seem to turn and swivel, catching the light, which also falls on the men’s shoulders and sleeves. In looking at this image, the eye keeps moving from the grounded bodies to the rippled and moving surface of the hats, perpetuating the sense of constant motion that is the image’s central subject while returning the viewer’s attention to the interplay of form and texture. Because of its close attention to the aesthetic elements of this public demonstration, Workers’ Parade could function in many different contexts. After its first appearance in Mexican Folkways (1926), the image was printed, untitled, in the Estridentista journal Horizonte (1927); it also appeared in the New York publication New Masses (1928) as “May Day in Mexico,” then in 1929 in Creative Art, the New York fine arts journal as “A Peasant’s Manifestation,” then again in 1930 in the Parisian journal BIFUR (literary journal of surrealists), called “Mexique,” and finally in the avant-garde journal transition (Gallo 56). With the circulation of this single image to multiple, varied viewers, Modotti demonstrated her ability to approach a public event in the city from many angles and to re-cast it into different discursive contexts through changing or omitting its caption.

14Modotti’s own history of performance on stage, in film, and in front of Weston’s camera, combined with her immersion in the bohemian worlds of Los Angeles and Mexico City, produced a distinct perspective on the contemporary city and led her towards accepting the contradictions and chaos of everyday life. As we have seen, this photographic practice of incorporating the experience of mobility and the visibility of social, cultural, and gendered difference was expressed first through the internal structure of spatial opposition within urban settings. Still acutely aware of the dynamics of performance, she began to discern how images might communicate to various audiences depending on strategies of framing or display. As I discuss in the next part of this essay, much of her subsequent work consisted of close-up portraits of working people or fleeting shots of indigenous women and villages in Oaxaca. This last group of photographs, which Modotti herself placed in a different category from the others (calling them “snapshots”), reveals not only her search for visual language that could speak across national boundaries and against oppression but also her experimentation with the ways that portraits of women could speak for alternative modernities in and beyond Mexico. In a final sequence of images made in the isthmus of Tehuantepec, Modotti adapted practices of street photography with a clear awareness of her own and her subjects’ visual histories to produce portraits of a modern type of Mexican woman capable of asserting her autonomy while sustaining traditional modes of work and identity. These are the images that finally ground Modotti’s 1929 defense of photography “as the most eloquent, the most direct means for fixing, for registering the present epoch” and lead towards her insistence that viewers must “accept the manifestations of our mechanical civilization” (“On Photography” 196).

Looking Beyond the Metropolis: Working Towards Tehuantepec

15A brief visit to San Francisco early in 1926, when Modotti met other women photographers, including Consuelo Kanaga, Imogen Cunningham, and Dorothea Lange, had proved decisive in clarifying a direction for the errant visual explorations that produced her early body of work. It strengthened Modotti’s resolve to use a new Graflex camera, urged her to “loosen up,” and led her to develop her “ideas of working differently at photography” (Modotti to Weston, 23 January 1926, qtd. in Hooks 118). This newfound resolve also meant questioning how and which aspects of Mexico’s past and present to focus on. She proclaimed to Weston, “From now on all my possessions are to be just in relation to photography — the rest — even things I love, concrete things — I shall lead through a metamorphosis — from the concrete turn them into abstract things” (Modotti to Weston, 25 January 1926, qtd. in Lowe 29). This statement points to a critical shift, from a personal way of seeing to a more socially and aesthetically informed one. Such a shift was evident to her contemporaries, as Carleton Beals noted in 1929:

One has but to look at these photographs to realize that there has been a great change in the photographer herself with respect to interests and values, — from the purely esthetic to the esthetic as expressed in the homely but significant phenomena of every day life, with their implied social significance. (qtd. in Toor, “Exposición de Fotografías de Tina Modotti,” 194)

16With this change Modotti followed the model set by Toor, as well as her own convictions. Toor had established the bilingual, transnational Mexican Folkways on her belief that the people of Mexico produced complex art that deserved attention and preservation; furthermore, she believed, such artists have “not made the unfortunate separation between utility and beauty which so greatly distorts our modern life” (“Editor’s Foreword” 3). Modotti, too, came to find in the working and indigenous people she observed the same ability to sustain tradition and integrate use and beauty in their everyday life.

17Modotti returned from California to Mexico just as her work appeared in the February-March issue of Mexican Folkways; soon, in the August-September issue, Workers’ Parade appeared. Although at this time she was in the process of developing a distinct political consciousness which she would express through photography, she still “operated between categories,” being “both in front of and behind the camera, at the forefront and absorbed into the ranks of communist activity, committed to the Mexican cause yet a foreigner” (Folgarait 100). Nor did she publicly declare herself a feminist or join a feminist organization. In this middle period of her time in Mexico, Modotti was still trying to accept her feeling that everyday life for women was “too chaotic — too unconscious,” as she expressed it in a letter to Weston on July 7, 1925 — and, nonetheless, to find a way to devote herself to art. Modotti insisted in this letter that she lacked the concentration “to be wholly absorbed by one thing” and that the “element of life is stronger in me than the element of art.” She concluded, “Women are negative as far as creation is concerned” (qtd. in Tejada 60). The struggle expressed in this letter reveals Modotti’s resistance to a single ideal or to an overly schematic division between categories of experience, as well as her rejection of a conventional feminine identity (Tejada 61). In the work that followed this statement, we see a constant testing of the camera’s power to order and control that chaos, an emerging acceptance of photography’s limits to do so, and a turn towards the possibility of visualizing traditional women’s identities as an alternative to masculine conceptions of “creation.” If the camera can only show the “present epoch” as it is, as Modotti came to believe, then images of the present had to be constructed to encompass relations to the past and to imagine a future beyond the projection of individual imagination or national ideology.

18From 1926 on Modotti photographed not only the marching masses but also individual workers, not only the technological and modern beauty of the city, but also families and women in rural Mexico. Several images from this stage of her career stand out for their focus on the actions and tools that define manual labor, such as Hands Resting on Tool, 1927 and Hands Washing, 1927, and they suggest her concern at this time with conditions and materials of work itself. By late 1927, Modotti’s house had become a communist “salon,” her studio “a propaganda space” plastered with photographs of Marx and communist mantras, and her days so “hectic” that she felt she didn’t have “a minute to myself” (Folgarait 89-90). Not having “a minute to myself,” for Modotti, really meant not having time to photograph as she chose. This confession suggests the ways that self-exploration and the exploration of her environment and its social struggles with her camera had become intertwined; clarifying her public identity as an artist would require exerting full control over the tools she used to create and display her work.

19Cropped and magnified so as to put working hands at the center, both images calibrate contrasts of tone and texture and explore the surfaces of bodies and the materials those bodies touch, use, and transform. Hands Resting on Tool captures a moment of repose, temporarily suspending what Modotti termed in a letter to Weston “the tragic conflict between life which continually changes and form which fixes it immutable […]” (Modotti to Weston, 14 November 1926, qtd. in Hooks 130). The hands themselves look to be covered with a stiff, uneven layer of dirt, while the nails have been clipped short and the cuticles rubbed ragged. The image also implies the ongoing work the hands perform through their owner’s worn and soiled shirt and the rough surface of the shovel’s metal handle. Unnamed and faceless, the worker who exhibits his hands here could be anyone; he thus comes to stand for the unacknowledged labor that produces the material foundation of modern life. The second image, Hands Washing, depicts a washerwoman in the middle of her work, her palms kneading a wet and soapy cloth so as to press out the dirt with the suds. Both images imagine their subjects as being “wholly absorbed by one thing” in a way that Modotti had expressed a desire to experience herself. Again she constructs the image by focusing in on the part of the body necessary for work and drawing out its beauty, playing the darkness of the woman’s forearms and hands against the whiteness of the crumbled cloth and the black stone slick with soap and glistening with water; the smooth charcoal-colored background further highlights the luminosity of the humble cloth, bringing order and dignity to common women’s work. These are not unavoidably political images in the way viewers would see the still life Bandolier, Corn, and Sickle, 1927, with its explicit arrangement of revolutionary symbols; La Técnica, 1928, an interrogation of the mechanical inner workings of the typewriter belonging to her lover, Cuban revolutionary Julio Antonio Mella; or the iconic Woman with a Flag, 1928. Nonetheless, these studies have political resonance in that they suggest workers’ hands can be made to speak a common language. They assert resemblance between different types of manual labor (farmers, construction and domestic workers, and photographers) and propose more equal relations between classes and cultures. Unlike the “mythic work ethic” promoted through the display of Indian crafts as artes populares in New York beginning the late 1920s and continuing through the “Indian Art for Modern Living” exhibit at the Museum of Modern Art in 1941, these images advance an ethos of solidarity by staging intimate local encounters between viewers and the bodies at work.

  • 5 For more details about this adaptation, see Adams’s analysis, 133-134.

20At the same time that Modotti “rejected the essentialist formulations by which picturesque photographers defined mexicanidad,” (Mraz 83) she kept re-negotiating her relation to such ubiquitous imagery and her role as a photographer. When she went to the isthmus of Tehuantepec in 1929 following Mella’s murder, Modotti escaped further surveillance in Mexico City and followed the paths of late nineteenth-century photographers, such as Charles B. Waite and Winfield Scott, and of Diego Rivera, who drew on photographs of Tehuana women for the figures he painted in murals at the Ministry of Public Education in Mexico City (as he had drawn on Weston’s nude photography of Modotti for the mural at the National School of Agriculture in Chapingo, Life on Earth)5. As she undoubtedly knew, Modotti arrived at a place not only full of myths but also full of women accustomed to being photographed for their beauty and dress. Acutely aware of the distortions of feminine identity that could result from self-conscious posing for a camera, she seemed to discover greater freedom by moving out of the studio and the city and through Oaxaca. The photographs she produced there counter her earlier claim that “women are negative as far as creation is concerned” and support her powerful notion of the photographer’s errant ethos with respect to Mexico. She wrote to Weston in 1929 that she felt an obligation “to the country to show, not so much what I have done here, but especially what can be done, without recurring to colonial churches and charros and chinas poblanas […]” (Modotti to Weston, 17 September 1929, qtd. in Folgarait 135). Most photographers indulged in what she called “trash” — stereotypical costumes or picturesque rural landscapes such as those preferred by German photographer Hugo Brehme, in which “the sources of nationhood and a past [are] made nostalgic” (Mraz 79). In Tehuantepec, Modotti instead looked at how people in the present moment dressed, worked, and lived.

21While no record of the chronology of the images from Tehuantepec nor of her direct encounters with her subjects exists beyond the photographs and one letter to Weston, with knowledge of the photographer’s performance history and the subject’s photographic history we can begin to see how Modotti incorporated her response to these histories on both sides of the camera. First, Modotti’s new way of working with “snapshots” in Tehuantepec rejects imposing the camera on the subject and controlling her space in favor of a more improvised relation directed by the moving subject. Several images show women with their backs to the camera, either walking quickly away or immersed in activity (see, for example, Woman with Child at Market Carrying Basket, ca. 1929 and Children in River, ca. 1929). Others depict market or fiesta scenes, clearly rendering the photographer a distant and impersonal observer (Fiesta in Juchitán, Oaxaca, Mexico, 1927-1929). Second, by relaxing her control over composition, some of these photographs seem, in the words of Tejada, “so devoid of self-conscious spectacle, as to be understood as a disavowal or overturning of modernist truth — which to say now the ‘untruth’ — of form” (88). In other words, they allow their subjects to continue as if not being looked at, as if they were not being photographed. Rather than engaging in a contest for control over identity, Modotti and the people she photographed in Tehuantepec each proceed with their everyday activities — whether taking photographs, bathing in the river, or selling goods at the market. In one image Modotti views a house almost entirely hidden by a tall fence; instead of looking for a door or window that might provide an aperture into the scene, she focuses on the walls that separate it from public view and protect its inhabitants (House in Tehuantepec, 1929).

22Finally, by connecting her female subjects with the places and objects essential to their everyday life, in the Tehuantepec series Modotti visualizes the ideal integration of use and beauty that she had sought since she started working as a photographer and activist for the Communist party. Her studies and snapshots simultaneously intensify women’s associations with traditional artifacts, such as ollas and the painted gourds called jicapexle, and assert the women’s independence and mobility. Perhaps the finest example is Woman of Tehuantepec, 1929, which focuses equally on the woman’s dress and face while drawing the viewer’s attention to the shape, volume, and intricate decoration on the jicapexle, which the woman balances easily with her arm. Unlike Weston’s portraits of Modotti, this portrait maintains a modest but compelling distance from its subject and shows her looking into the distance, poised to walk on. In my interpretation of Modotti’s image, the woman’s beauty derives from her strong posture and her integrated identity. The traditional dress and vessel are not costume and prop; they continue to function in her everyday life. This is not at all to say that Modotti thought tradition should always be maintained, or that indigenous women should be responsible for doing so. Neither photographer nor viewer has any way of knowing how this woman experienced her work and her visibility. Modotti’s portrait, however, perceives such integration and conveys it through the image’s formal organization and its caption. The woman is of Tehuantepec and she represents a culture that had remained fairly independent and isolated from Mexico’s modernization. By contrast, the Self-portrait, Tehuantepec Modotti made at about the same time, reproduced and discussed by Folgarait (132-3), presents an entirely different relation to locality. Clearly posing herself in a costume against an adobe wall, Modotti appears to be relaxed but not fully comfortable, trying out an identity, not inhabiting it. The juxtaposition of these portraits seems to prove that Modotti knew one could not pretend to be of Tehuantepec.

23The importance of Tehuantepec to Modotti’s own identity as a photographer, however, became clear in the placement of two photographs from this series in Mexican Folkways’ publication of “Sobre la fotographia/On Photography”: Mother and Child from Tehuantepec, Oaxaca and a version of Woman of Tehuantepec (here titled The Tehuantepec women carry fruit and flowers on their heads in painted gourds called jicapexle). By extending her errant practice of photography into a region where women had already been visualized in stereotypical form and constructing her own perspective in mobile relation to their own rooted and purposeful identities, Modotti arrived at the clearest understanding of her errant vision. Modotti’s written statement articulates her desire to “produce not art but honest photographs” and to be “a photographer, nothing more.” It expresses satisfaction that photography can record “objective life in all its aspects.” And “[i]f to this is added sensibility and understanding,” then, she writes, “the result is something worthy of a place in social production, to which we should all contribute.” Now consider the effect produced by the images interspersed in the written pages. The statement is introduced by a portrait of a pregnant mother holding her baby on her hip, a picture taken from the side in order to heighten the tension between the solid angularity of the mother’s arm and pliant folds of the baby’s skin; then it is punctuated by the regal Woman of Tehuantepec, who looks frankly beyond the photographer, off the page. Grounded by images of women who exemplify a balance between rootedness and mobility and between tradition and technical innovation, the printed version of “On Photography” both enacts and proclaims the value of negotiating between these opposing approaches to modernization. In these images and in her definitive aesthetic statement, Modotti demonstrates her honest and worthy contribution to the visualization of Mexican modernity.

Adams, Rachel, 2009, Continental Divides: Remapping the Cultures of North America, Chicago and London, University of Chicago Press.

Albers, Patricia, 1999, Shadows, Fire, Snow: The Life of Tina Modotti, New York, Clarkson Potter.

ARGENTIERI, Letitia, 2003, Tina Modotti: Between Art and Revolution, New Haven and London, Yale University Press.

Brenner, Anita, 2010, Avant Garde Art & Artists in Mexico: Anita Brenner’s Journals of the Roaring Twenties, Susannah Joel Glusker (ed.), Austin, University of Texas Press.

Debroise, Olivier, 2001, Mexican Suite: A History of Photography in Mexico, trans. Stella de Sá Rego, Austin, University of Texas Press.

Folgarait, Leonard, 2008, Seeing Mexico Photographed: The Work of Horne, Casasola, Modotti, and Álvarez Bravo, New Haven and London, Yale University Press.

Gabara, Esther, 2008, Errant Modernism: The Ethos of Photography in Mexico and Brazil, Durham, Duke University Press.

Gallo, Rubén, 2005, Mexican Modernity: The Avant-Garde and the Technological Revolution, Cambridge and London, MIT Press.

Hedrick, Tace, 2003, Mestizo Modernism: Race, Nation, and Identity in Latin American Culture, 1900-1940, New Brunswick, Rutgers University Press.

Hooks, Margaret, 1993, Tina Modotti: Radical Photographer, New York, Da Capo Press.

Huyssen, Andreas, 2005, “Geographies of Modernism in a Globalizing World,” in Peter Brooker and Andrew Thacker (eds.), Geographies of Modernism, London and New York, Routledge, p. 6-18.

Lowe, Sarah M., 2004, Tina Modotti and Edward Weston: The Mexico Years, London and New York, Merrell.

Mao Douglas & Rebecca L. Walkowitz, 2008, “The New Modernist Studies,” PMLA 123.3, p. 737-749.

Modotti, Tina, 1929, “On Photography,” Mexican Folkways 5.4, p. 196-198.

Modotti, Tina, 1932, “Photography as Weapon,” repr. 1994, in History of Photography 18.5, p. 289.

Montgomery, Harper, 2014, “From Aesthetics to Work: Displaying Indian Labor as Modernist Form in Mexico City and New York,” Modernism/Modernity 21.1, p. 231-251.

Mraz, John, 2009, Looking for Mexico: Modern Visual Culture and Mexican Identity, Durham and London, Duke University Press.

Noble, Andrea, 2010, Photography and Memory in Mexico: Icons of Revolution, Manchester and New York, Manchester University Press.

Pyne, Kathleen, 2007, Modernism and the Feminine Voice: O’Keeffe and Women of the Stieglitz Circle, Berkeley, University of California Press.

Rashkin, Elissa J., 2009, The Stridentist Movement in Mexico: The Avant-garde and Cultural Change in the 1920s, Lanham, Maryland, USA: Lexington Books/Rowman and Littlefield Publishers.

Segre, Erica, 2007, Intersected Identities: Strategies of Visualization in Nineteenth- and Twentieth-Century Mexican Culture, New York and Oxford, Berghahn Books.

Tejada, Roberto, 2009, National Camera: Photography and Mexico’s Image Environment, Minneapolis, University of Minnesota Press.

Toor, Frances, 1925, “Editor’s Foreword,” Mexican Folkways 1.1, p. 3-4.

Toor, Frances, 1929, “Exposición de Fotografías de Tina Modotti,” Mexican Folkways 5.4, p. 192-194.

Warren, Beth Gates, 2011, Artful Lives: Edward Weston, Margrethe Mather, and the Bohemians of Los Angeles, Los Angeles, J. Paul Getty Museum.

Warren, Beth Gates, 2001, Margrethe Mather & Edward Weston, New York and London, W. W. Norton & Company.

Williams, Raymond, 1997, “Metropolitan Perceptions and the Emergence of Modernism,” in Tony Pinckney (ed.), The Politics of Modernism, London and New York, Verso, p. 37-48.


1 For a review of new scholarship in the field, see Mao and Walkowitz, “The New Modernist Studies.”

2 To view Weston’s portraits of Modotti, consult the online archive at the Center for Creative Photography, the University of Arizona:

3 For a thorough analysis of this movement and Modotti’s role in it, see Rashkin, especially p. 86-90.

4 To view the photographs by Modotti cited throughout this article, consult the online archive at the Museum of Modern Art, New York:, and the Tina Modotti series at the George Eastman House, Rochester, New York:

5 For more details about this adaptation, see Adams’s analysis, 133-134.


Georgia State University Associate Chair,

Audrey Goodman teaches at Georgia State University. Her interests focus on the literary and visual cultures of the modern metropolis, the greater U.S. Southwest, and the U.S.-Mexico borderlands. Dr. Goodman is the author of two books, including Translating Southwestern Landscapes (University of Arizona Press, 2002) which won the 2003 Thomas J. Lyon Award for the Best Critical Book on Western American Literature from the Western Literature Association. Her recent projects include Willa Cather’s acoustic archive, and networks of women artists and photographers in San Francisco, Los Angeles, and Mexico City. As the co-founder (with Pearl McHaney) of the South Atlantic Center for the Institut des Amériques (SACIdA), Dr. Goodman has promoted collaboration with faculty and students at the University of Toulouse II Jean Jaurès, the University of Versailles Saint-Quentin-en-Yvelines, and the University of Venice Ca’ Foscari.

Audrey Goodman enseigne à Georgia State University. Sa recherche porte sur la culture visuelle et littéraire de la métropole moderne, le grand Sud-Ouest américain et la frontière entre le Mexique et les États-Unis. Elle est l’auteure de deux ouvrages, dont Translating Southwestern Landscapes (University of Arizona Press, 2002), lauréat du Prix Thomas J. Lyon Award (2003), dans la catégorie Best Critical Book on Western American Literature, décerné par la Western Literature Association. Ses projets récents portent sur les archives acoustiques de Willa Cather et les réseaux de femmes artistes et photographes à San Francisco, Los Angeles et Mexico. Co-fondatrice de la SACIdA (l’un des douze pôles internationaux de l’Institut des Amériques, implanté à Atlanta), Audrey Goodman est responsable des échanges avec les universités de Toulouse Jean Jaurès, Versailles Saint-Quentin-en-Yvelines et Ca’ Foscari (Venise).

Audrey Goodman enseña en la Georgia State University. Su trabajo de investigación se centra en la cultura visual y literaria de la metrópoli moderna, el gran sur-oeste estadounidense y la frontera entre México y los Estados Unidos. Es autora de dos libros, entre los que destaca Translating Southwestern Landscapes (University of Arizona Press, 2002), que obtuvo el Premio Thomas J. Lyon Award (2003), en la categoría Best Critical Book on Western American Literature, atribuido por la Western Literature Association. Sus proyectos recientes se interesan en los archivos acústicos de Willa Cather y las redes de mujeres artistas y fotógrafas en San Francisco, Los Angeles y México. Co-fundadora de la SACIda (uno de los doce polos internacionales del Instituto de las Américas, implantado en Atlanta), Audrey Goodman es responsable de los intercambios con las universidades de Toulouse Jean Jaurès, Versailles Saint-Quentin-en-Yvelines y Ca’ Foscari (Venecia).

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