A podcast about the culture, history, and madness of photography.
(fig. 1: Gerda Taro)
Gerda Taro didn’t just help invent one of the world’s most famous photographers. Briefly, she was him.
The year is 1936. On the outskirts of Barcelona, a small plane crash-lands. Miraculously, everyone on board survives, including two photographers, Robert Capa and Gerda Taro. They were risking their lives to cover the Spanish Civil War that had broken out months prior. Capa would take one of the most famous war photos in history. Taro would become the first female photographer to die in conflict — and be largely forgotten.
But it’s really a story about two identities so intertwined that it’s hard to keep them apart; difficult to know who’s who, who did what, and what it means to be a photographer.
You’ve likely seen the following picture before. A man with his arms outstretched and his eyes closed. He’s dropping his rifle, his body falling down as a fatal bullet strikes: The Falling Soldier.
(fig. 2: “The Falling Soldier”, one of Robert Capa’s most famous photos.)
It’s the most iconic picture of those taken by Robert Capa and Gerda Taro during the civil war. The man in the picture was part of a militia defending the Spanish Republic against the fascist uprising led by general Francisco Franco. It was a war the Republic ultimately lost, a war that killed hundreds of thousands of people, and led to 36 years of fascist dictatorship in Spain.
“When I came back from the war, I was suddenly a famous photographer,” Robert Capa later said. And no wonder: the picture was highly symbolic.
(fig. 3: Impressions from the Spanish Civil War)
(fig. 4: Impressions from the Spanish Civil War)
The man in the picture was fighting with a simple rifle against troops equipped with machine guns. Capa later said the militiamen he photographed were “mowed down”. In a single shot, the picture captures the entire tragedy and horror of the war.
It shows death unfold, something that had rarely been captured in a photograph until then. Previously, photographers would take their pictures before or after a battle, but Capa and Taro got right in on the action. They embedded with the fighters and ran through gunfire to get their photos. This was radical, unheard of, and arguably somewhat crazy. But for them, the matter was personal.
Robert Capa and Gerda Taro both had Jewish roots. Both had lived in Germany in the 1920s and 30s where they witnessed the rise of the Nazi party. Both had suffered antisemitism and it forced them to leave Germany and move to France shortly after Hitler came to power.
The two were part of a massive exodus from Germany. He was a young photographer originally from Hungary, and she made pictures and worked for an image agency. Their circle of friends was heavily left-leaning — communists, socialists, the odd anarchist. These were volatile times after all, and being in opposition to the injustices at home also meant being sympathetic with left-wing ideologies in far flung countries. The Spanish Civil War became the battleground for ideologists on both sides of the fence.
Let’s be clear: they put their lives in danger because they believed in the cause. The famous Capa saying “If your pictures aren’t good enough, you’re not close enough” wasn’t just about being physically close to your subject but about being emotionally close too. Capa and Taro lived and worked by that conviction and the values of the militiamen they were covering.
A working woman with short hair, Gerda Taro was unbound by convention. She was unmarried but partnered with occasional boyfriends. Capa was one.
Although they had left Germany behind, they nevertheless struggled with the antisemitism which existed across Europe at that time. That’s why they took on those names we know them by — pseudonyms that would mask their Jewish backgrounds and make it easier to get assignments. Taro was born as Gerda Pohorylle. Robert Capa was known as André Friedmann before.
(fig. 5: A rare picture ofRobert Capa and Gerda Taro, together)
The name changes obscured their European heritage, added ambiguity, cast them as roving citizens. Global humanity was their cause… and now, in some ways, their identity. Capa wanted to present as an American photojournalist which, so the logic went, would allow them to demand higher prices for pictures. Gerda had observed this in-built bias to the picture industry during her employment at a Paris image agency.
When they took photos together, as they did in Spain, they often published them under the Capa byline — most likely also to mask the fact that there was a female photographer behind them. So while Robert Capa was a real person — the just-renamed André Friedmann — he was also an invention: The product of two photographer’s combined creativity, courage, and body of work.
Photographers can inhabit a character. In the 20th century, photographers were heralded as truth-seekers taking great personal risk to bring the world to the pages of news and magazines. Capa and Taro understood this. They nurtured their brand (not cynically) in order to elevate the work and its humanitarian message. The identity of the fearless war photographer Robert Capa was forged in the Spanish Civil War. By two people at once.
His career wouldn’t have been possible without Taro’s contribution. Not only did she make images, she also provided many of their early contacts in the publishing and photo world. The benefits were reciprocal: at rapid pace and in the field, Taro learned elements of the photographic craft from Friedmann. To this day, it remains unclear which one of them had shot which exact pictures. The work was shared, the legacy wasn’t.
Eclipsed by the Man on Her Side
Photography became their way to paper over their Jewish backgrounds, their countries of origin, their young age. The photos they took, revolutionary at the time, allowed them to become somebody else — however briefly and secretly. For Gerda Taro to break out of her past like that, to find a new role and defy gender roles in the process meant being a true pioneer.
(fig. 6: A French paper’s announcement that Gerda Taro had died covering the war.)
All that makes it even more a tragedy that she was eclipsed by the man at her side. In 1937, Gerda Taro died in battle, crushed by a Republican tank as she was retreating from the approaching Francoist forces. After her highly publicized death, most of her pictures were quietly reattributed to Robert Capa. As Capa went on to cover many other conflicts, he became known as the pioneer of war photography.
Today, Taro has that questionable honor of being the first female photographer to have died in a war. She’s known as a martyr for the socialist cause, there’s a street named after her in Leipzig. But I prefer to remember her as the woman who used photography to create a new identity for herself, build the myth of Robert Capa and defy all the odds in the process.
(fig. 7: Gerda Taro during the Spanish Civil War)
January 5, 2018
(Fig 1: Vitas Luckus on the roof of Kaunas cathedral, 1971)
Vitas Luckus was too revolutionary a photographer to be accepted. But his is no ordinary rebel’s story.
The further away we get from a specific time, the harder it becomes to understand that time. This effect is called historical distance; and the ‘distance’ describes not just being removed from a time or a location, but from the ideologies and world views that shaped it.
When I first read about this, I was fascinated. Is it really so difficult to understand another time, even if we have historical records to understand the context and photos to see the moments?
There’s something counterintuitive about that, I admit: In hindsight, things usually become easier to understand. That’s because we take what we know about history and assemble it into a picture of what happened. Or we look at the pictures of that time and make sense of it by what’s frozen in the frame.
Images are seductive like that. They create the impression that there’s no historical distance worth speaking of. That the past is like an illustrated story with just one possible conclusion.
A rebel against convention itself
Let’s begin with the ending, then. Let’s start by saying that Lithuanian photographer Vitas Luckus died after jumping out of the window of his 5th floor apartment in the winter of 1987. That his wife found him in the snow.
Seconds earlier, Luckus had committed murder: There was a visitor at his place, and there had been an argument, reportedly about his photography. Luckus stabbed the visitor with a kitchen knife, only to realize that the guy was a KGB agent and there would undoubtedly be consequences. He chose death over punishment.
Nobody quite knows what caused him to snap, but it’s safe to say that Vitas Luckus and his work had never quite fit in. Maybe there was frustration, maybe provocation. What we do know is that he had been a rebel all his life, even though he was born in 1943 and grew up in a repressive Soviet state.
His rebellion wasn’t so much political, it was rather a rebellion against convention itself. The photographer wanted to see the world differently, rattle the bars of normal life. It set him up for conflict, but it’s also what made his photography so unusual, and so great.
Luckus’ pictures are raw, they are taken right in the action, and while some of them have the quality of a snapshot, they bear witness to a great eye, to someone who was looking to picture reality in an authentic and unobscured fashion. These are the pictures of someone with a passionate to see reality differently.
(Fig. 4: Photo by Vitas Luckus)
(Fig. 2: Photo by Vitas Luckus)
(Fig. 3: Photo by Vitas Luckus)
(Fig. 5: Photo by Vitas Luckus)
Despite of all that, you’ve probably never seen any of his pictures. Never heard of the photographer and his peers. Neither had I, until a few weeks ago. Photography is so dominated by iconic figures that some never reach fame, no matter how great they are (or once were). It certainly doesn’t help Lithuanian photographers’ cause that they were obscured by the iron curtain most of their working lives.
The former Eastern Bloc is no longer hidden but still overlooked. In their small Baltic country, Lithuanians carved out their own visual language. Heavily influenced by Henri Cartier-Bresson, they produced rigid, black and white reportage. Photographers captured everyday life in Lithuania with technically perfect shots that had a sober formality to them.
(Fig. 6: Photo by Rakauskas)
(Fig. 7: Photo by Miežanskas)
(Fig. 8: Photo by Atanas Sutkus)
But the formality of this ‘Lithuanian School’ wasn’t just driven by aesthetics, it had a political component as well: Under strict control from Moscow, Lithuanian photographers — like those other states — were under pressure to show life in the Soviet Union in a good light.
Vitas Luckus wasn‘t having it
That means this strict formality of the Lithuanian school I discovered was really a corset: It defined strict boundaries within which photographers could artistically express themselves.
Vitas Luckus wasn’t having it. Just like he challenged convention, he challenged the notion of what photography should do. For him, it wasn’t just about capturing what was there like a reporter and other photographers of his time did. He saw photography as a medium for intense creative expression, for capturing his unconventional view of the world.
That’s why his photos were so different. They use strange angles and subjects. Some shots are chaotic. Many involve nudes. And some are made up of vintage photos that he cut apart and reassembled. He took the Lithuanian school and built on top of it, creating what the Russian writer Anri Vartanov has called “lyrical reportage”. The photos use their quirkiness to suggest that life isn’t all systemic and orderly, no matter what the authorities might say.
(Fig. 9: Vitas Luckus and his wife Tatjana, in a self-portrait)
Luckus himself once wrote “the camera allows me to reflect my feelings.” And he had lots of those: According to the people who knew him, he was an intense human being. Driven by a mad desire to work, he sometimes didn’t sleep for days, spending nights in his darkroom developing photos. He was a passionate lover, according to his wife Tatyana and the letters he wrote to her.
He spontaneously traveled much of the Soviet Union, kept a lion cub as a pet, lived the wild life. Driven by a desire to leave normalcy behind. As a friend put it, “always overwhelmed by emotion”. That also made him impulsive, a heavy drinker, immune to authority. His first brush with the KGB came when he took illegal leave from his military service to see a photo exhibition in St. Petersburg.
I get the impression that photography was his way of breaking out, and at the same time a way to exorcise his demons. There’s feeling that shines through. Positive feelings like passion for living life to the fullest, or joy about being in love. But also uncertainty, a feeling of not fitting in, not quite fulfilling expectations. Another Russian writer, Lev Anninsky, has called it a “feeling of insurmountability”. It makes the photos bittersweet.
We can see the same duality in Vitas Luckus’ career. He was a founding member of the Lithuanian photographer’s association. His early work was selected for a show in Russia, where ‘Nine Lithuanian Photographers’ were shown to great fanfare in 1969. But soon enough, his work started being considered overly risky. His work was never shown again: Sometimes because exhibitors were overly careful. Sometimes because they rejected an individual picture of his, to which he reacted by pulling all the others.
It was all or nothing for him, and so Vitas Luckus’ became a revered outcast: His peers loved his work, but the public never got to see it. He had friends in the high echelons of Soviet photography, but those friends then refused to exhibit his work, even when he donated it to the museums they ran.
Vitas Luckus’ life ended with an argument about photography on that winter night in 1987. And while gruesome, it suddenly seems comprehensible. Here, was a visionary artist, weighted down by a system, who ultimately cracked under pressure.
Yet I don’t think it’s that simple. Vitas Luckus lived in a place and a time so different from our own that I don’t think we should just it file away as yet another rebel’s story.
Look, I wanted to understand the conditions. I even went to Lithuania and visited Luckus’ home town. I saw an exhibition of his work at the Kaunas photo gallery, and walked through the streets in the pouring rain. But the Lithuania I visited didn’t give me any clues. It is, of course, in the same place, but it runs on a completely different source code. The historical distance felt insurmountable.
And so for me, this story has two sides. It tells us something about a fascinating photographer and the conditions that might have shaped him. But it tells us just as much about how we try to assess the lives of historical people, based on the pictures we see or form in our heads.
The past isn’t just a story. It’s the outcome of many tiny moments, decision, conditions, circumstances. It is what happens when a person is out there in the world, tries to make sense of it, and is touched by many other lives in the process. There is no foregone conclusion.
So I’m going to leave you with something Vitas Luckus’ widow said, many years later, when she referred back to the years of an all-too short life together.
(Fig. 10: Tanya Luckiene-Aldag, photographed by Vitas Luckus.
November 22, 2017
When we were young, I did not realize that we were living something, and now I realize it was history.
(fig. 1: A photo by Alvarez Bravo)
Mexican photographer Manuel Álvarez Bravo captured something that cannot be seen.
Here’s a simple but curious photo, taken by the late Mexican photographer Manuel Álvarez Bravo: It shows an exposed brick wall under a dark sky, with diagonal power lines crossing the clouds. In the foreground there’s a gleaming sidewalk. On it, we see a woman and a man, walking towards each other. They’re most likely just pedestrians in mid-stride, but the photographer has captured them as though they’re about to meet. It looks dramatic, somehow, that meeting under the dark sky with some stark white laundry fluttering in the background.
The photo comes from a collection of Álvarez Bravos work I recently stumbled up, called ‘Photopoetry’. I wasn’t quite sure what that meant, but flipping through the pages, it slowly dawned on me that this work was, in fact poetic.
Mind you, I have never had much of a knack for poetry. Hell, for the longest time, I considered it some incomprehensible writing with too many line breaks. But then I read a few novels by Roberto Bolaño that turned out to be written rather poetically, and it opened my eyes: Bolaño wrote in a language that was deliberately emotional rather than factual. By that I mean he used words to evoke a feeling, augmenting whatever was actually described on the printed page.
Photos Communicate Quicker
You must surely have experience something like that yourself, in a great book, perhaps a movie, or when listening to some of your favorite songs. A visceral reaction that a piece of art elicits, something that feels not just beautiful, but strangely profound.
You could consider the poetic language a bit of a problem-solver. Telling a good story is hard. But arguably, it is even harder in the small space of a short story or a poem. The space constraints mean that you have to condense or strip down an idea, or express it differently than you would in longform. Through words that normally mean something else. Through metaphors. Impressions. The author Virginia Heffernan has even argued that much short form writing is necessarily poetic, that tweets, for instance, often resort to poetry to express an idea in 140 characters.
(fig. 3: The photographer)
What I am getting at is that photos are perfect at accomplishing the same thing. In an instant, they can say accurately what’s difficult to put into words. Take my explanation at the top: As much as I enjoy describing photos in writing, you get a much better, quicker impression of the photo by looking at it. I can give you an approximation by describing stark, white, fluttering laundry over an exposed brick wall. But the image conveys all those descriptions in an instant. Better yet: It is evocative. The photo touches you by communicating more than just a moment and tapping into something much deeper.
It is poetic.
In his new book, ‘Why Poetry?’, the author Matthew Zapruder describes the effect like this:
I have found that the poems which have meant the most to me (…) retain a central unsayability, a place where the drama of truly looking for something essential that can never quite be reached is expressed. Somewhere in the poem, or at its end, knowingness stops. You can feel the intelligence in the poem truly exploring, clambering along the words and down the page, and also that intelligence stopping at what cannot be known. Those moments where a limit is reached can often be the greatest, and most honest, in poetry.
Elevating Photos with Meaning
I love that. Moments where the limits are reached. When there’s an unsayability. That’s exactly what I see when I look at many photos, especially those by Manuel Álvarez Bravo from his collection “Photopoetry”. He was exceptional at making that happen, because he recognized something profound in everyday situations. Using the camera, he captured what he saw—and some of the photos will leave you speechless, even though there’s nothing in them. An agave plant. A shadow on a wall. A stoop in a house.
Photographer William Eggleston once said that “objects in photos are naturally full of human presence.” He recognized that even frames devoid of activity naturally hint at something. Not necessarily at something that had happened, but rather something that could happen. A sense of possibility.
Photopoetry, then, is a way of seeing. A way of recognizing what sense of possibility is hiding in plain sight. It means elevating a photo any given subject by imbuing it with meaning. Something you can’t put into words, but that’s still there, sensed by the viewer.
Let’s for a moment recall that he did it in the 1940s, when most of the world was fighting a bitter, brutal war. For a time there, art wasn’t much of a priority, and certainly not the poetry of everyday life. Again, Zapruder explains:
The fleeting poetry of a mundane scene glimpsed in the street or captured through a car windshield: in the early sixties, very few photographers considered a supermarket, a light bulb hanging from the ceiling, or the inside of a diner frequented by ghostly patrons to be subjects worthy of interest.
Álvarez Bravo chose to look carefully. And just like him, we can do the same. Walk around with open eyes. Consider the clouds in the distance, the light falling into a room, just so. You might not be able to say why that moves you, but you also don’t have to. Just enjoy that the whole new world that opens up.
(fig. 3: A photo by Alvarez Bravo)
September 3, 2017
(fig 1.: Sergio Larraín, Valparaiso)
Why a Chilean photographer quit fame in pursuit of mysticism and solitude.
Sergio Larraín was never quite a star. But he was a great photographer. Self taught, the Chilean picked up his camera skills during a trip through Europe in the 1950s. When he was 25, the Museum of Modern Art bought two of Larraín’s photographs. At 27, Henri Cartier-Bresson invited him to join the prestigious photo agency Magnum.
At 41, he stopped taking pictures.
Sergio Larraín’s photos are celebrated for a reason. He took black and white shots with a soul: Masterful photos that evokes the taste of the places he discovered. In his book Valparaiso—considered Larraín’s masterpiece—we see a hypnotic vision of the Chilean port city.
Surreal in their clarity, the pictures can best be described as magically realist: Larraín carries us through a city of concrete walls and narrow stairs, he shows one grainy picture after another, full of children, alley dogs, and mysterious silhouettes.
The sea always glistens in the background.
(fig. 3: From Valparaiso)
(fig. 4: From Valparaiso)
Valparaiso is one of just four books Larraín ever published. It started as a magazine assignment in the 1960s, when he would hang out in the city with the poet Pablo Neruda.
Over time, documenting Valparaiso became more than that, a long-term personal project, but it wasn’t before 1991 — which is 30 years later — that he turned the photos into a book. What had happened in between is just as fascinating as the photos.
(fig 5.: The cover of the inaugural edition of Valparaiso)
At the cusp of fame, Larraín had met a Bolivian guru, Oscar Ichazo, and joined his school which purported to guide people in search of “pristine enlightenment”. Larraín was smitten.
“That’s where he started to distance himself from photography”, recounts his ex-wife Paz Huneeus in a 2012 interview with the Chilean newspaper La Segunda. “He preferred a life of mysticism and began practicing yoga.”
Larraín turned away from art and fame. He started dressing in all white, moved to a remote mountain village, and inhabited a small house, apparently even with group of disciples. His career as a photographer was effectively over.
(fig 6.: From Valparaiso)
Larraín’s mysticism shines through in Valparaiso. The photos are interspersed with handwritten notes, sometimes consisting of just one word like “tranquility”, sometimes entire, dramatic manifestos. He laments war and destruction, sounds hopeless at times: “We are going towards a garbage deposit turning around the sun.”
Was Larraín’s meeting with the guru Ichazo enough alone to spur such drastic life changes? It had a role, but I think Larraín’s journey began with his photography. Taking photos does something to people.
Analogous to the outward-facing nature of the art comes an inward-facing disposition to reflect. To ponder what you’re shooting, and why. Larraín roamed the streets, shot beautiful pictures of workers, children, animals. The photos affected him.
(fig. 7: A self-portrait by Sergio Larraín)
In 1982, Larraín’s nephew wrote a letter asking for advice on becoming a photographer. Larraín’s response is beautiful, and full of introspection. One must stay steady, humble and focused. The conventional cannot distract you.
It’s about vagabonding, sitting down under a tree anywhere. It’s about wandering in the universe by yourself: you will start looking again. The conventional world puts a veil over your eyes, it’s a matter of taking it off during your time as a photographer.
That insight is what makes Larraín’s photos so captivating. He looked right past the conventional, saw the exceptional in ordinary life. There is wonder all around us. In the same letter Larraín urged his nephew to find a place that could bewitch, just as Valparaiso bewitched him.
Valparaiso is always beautiful, get lost in the magic, get lost for days up and down its slopes and streets, sleep in a sleeping bag, soak in reality — like a swimmer in the water — and let nothing conventional distract you.
When the veil was lifted on the world, Larraín saw a reality full of inequality. Looking past convention, clarity shocked him into the world.
“The injustice wore him down,” said Larraín’s son.
The crumbling walls were not permanent, and Larraín saw that the sea was but a backdrop for poverty. Clarity is a double-edged sword. Keep that in mind when you pick up a camera.
(fig. 8: From Valparaiso)
August 20, 2017
We like to say that the camera doesn’t lie. But the reality it shows isn’t quite real either.
The girl is suspended in time, frozen in a moment of exhilaration. On the picture, her hair blows in the wind and she has thrown her left arm up in delight. In trance, possibly.
Something about the girl’s exposed back makes the photo look like a painting. The light on her shoulders is just too perfect, the way it falls down her back and emphasizes the creases in her dress.
The brevity of a moment, made beautifully permanent
“In the blinking of the camera’s shutter,” writes John Banville, “time is stopped”. To the author, the fact that you can’t stop time with a human eye means that photography does something unreal. He continues: “The world in pictures is a world of being, while in the real world, everything is a fearless progress of becoming.”
The girl in the photo is stuck in a moment in 1968, when photographer Dennis Stock took her photo at a rock concert. But what makes it so remarkable isn’t that she’s frozen. We have certainly seen that before.
It is the way the photographer has isolated her in the picture. She is close to his camera, while the rest of the world, a busy crowd of concert-goers, has faded into the background. They’re frozen too, but we only see them sitting on a beach, waiting, unperturbed. None of them are celebrating like her. And so the girl looks like she doesn’t quite belong, as though someone had cut her out and glued her into this frame, like a collage.
But of course nobody has. There’s a little ledge visible in the lower left corner of the picture, showing that she stands on some kind of platform. In fact, nothing about the picture is unrealistic: It’s just that the perspective and the framing is spot on, the exposure just right, the emotion perfectly captured. It’s the brevity of a moment made beautifully permanent in a picture that isn’t just realistic, but hyperrealistic. It seems odd.
Captured reality has become art
Our eyes are powerful instruments. To speak in camera terms, the finest camera lens pales in comparison to our eyes’ color accuracy, low-light performance and rapid focus. But couple the camera lens with the ability to freeze time and you get what we consider artful. Cameras capture something hyperrealistic, something we can’t normally see. Our eyes move on too quickly. The world is in a process of becoming, remember?
Susan Sontag had another name for hyperrealism: She called it surrealism. In her famous book “On Photography”, she writes “Surrealism lies at the heart of the photographic enterprise”. Since her book gets quoted way too often, I am going to spare you the rest of that paragraph. The point is that Sontag recognized the oddity of any given photo—because its realism wasn’t quite right. For it to be surreal, “manipulation is unnecessary, if not redundant”, she wrote. There, I quoted her again.
We’re fond of saying that the camera doesn’t lie. As an inanimate object, it fundamentally has no agenda and produces representations as faithful as the technology allows. When photography was first invented, painters actually found it too realistic for art: They made a distinction between artistic and realistic representation, possibly to save their own jobs. For a while, the camera’s realism was considered vulgar, but in photography we’ve now accepted that reality, as captured by the camera, has become art.
The camera does lie
There’s still a paradox, though. As cameras get technically refined, photos become sharper, and our reality quite literally moves into focus, the resulting photos become more and more hyperrealistic. Their brilliance no longer mirrors our experience.
You could understand that to mean that humans aren’t perfect. That despite of our great eyes, we’re fundamentally flawed observers, too busy living from one second to the next to really stop and capture something as vividly as the camera can. You could argue that our memory is too unreliable, that it takes the same artistic liberties as a painter does when we remember something. Or you could turn it all on its head and repeat after me: The camera does lie.
June 22, 2017
(fig. 1: Tina Modotti, 1921, taken by Edward Weston)
I could say that I started this article because Tina Modotti was many things at once. An actress. A photographer. A spy. I could say that I was drawn to her minimalist work. Her time in Mexico. But none of that would be true. I got interested in Tina Modotti because of the look in her eyes.
The look was captured in 1921 by Edward Weston. It’s a dark, grainy black and white photo. On it, you see a woman standing before a wall, slightly out of focus. She has her hand on her neck, holding up the collar of a trench coat. And while the left side of the picture dark, the right side shows her face. Tina Modotti looks right at the camera, with a mixture of shyness, aloofness, and… seduction. As hard as the look is to describe: It’s even harder to forget.
Recently, I heard about the concept of “Anterior Future”: The idea is that photos are particularly powerful if they show something that’s about to happen. When the capture foreshadows an event we know will take place. The portrait of Tina Modotti is an innocent one, there’s no imminent danger visible. But of course we do have the benefit of hindsight.
The portrait was taken in the United States in 1921. Eight years before, Tina Modotti had arrived by boat from her native Italy, started working as a seamstress, and eventually acted in a few silent movies. When the picture was taken, Tina was living in Los Angeles with her husband, a Canadian poet and painter. But her life was already in upheaval: Edward Weston, who took that portrait, had just become her lover.
The photo was snapped right before Tina’s life changed dramatically. We know this now, and that’s what makes it so powerful. It was taken before Tina’s husband went to Mexico and she followed him, only to discover that he had died of smallpox, just two days before her arrival.
The photo was taken before the newly-widowed Tina and her lover Edward Weston established themselves in Mexico. Before they started hanging out with the artists and expatriates of the hour. She befriended Frida Kahlo and posed for Diego Rivera, appearing in some of his murals. She even met the exiled Russian revolutionary Leon Trotski.
Hindsight tinges perception
The 1921 portrait captured her before she started taking photos herself, before she began documenting post-revolutionary Mexico, a country she called “full of light”. In their biography, the Museum of Modern art describes them like this: “Tina Modotti’s photographs blend formal rigor with social awareness”. Her first pictures were studies of light and form, but later included workers and peasants, mothers and children.
Her later photos reflected the social injustices she found in Mexico — and her political leanings. Tina Modotti joined the Communist party, worked as a photographer for its newspaper. She split with Edward Weston, who moved back to America. Instead, she began going out with a young Cuban revolutionary, who was assassinated just a few months after they had met.
(fig. 2: Campesinos Reading El Machete, 1929, taken by Tina Modotti)
Hindsight tinges our perception. When I look at Tina’s portrait from 1921, I now see curiosity as well as sadness, about a future she couldn’t possibly have know. But it also shows resilience. She was not one to give up. And when they expelled her from Mexico because of her communist leanings, when they took away the life she had made for herself, she didn’t give up. Tina moved to Berlin, then Moscow, working for the Third International to further the Communist cause she believed in.
She stopped taking pictures sometime around 1931. We don’t know why — only that she seems to have wrestled with its role in what she called “social production”. Maybe she had doubts that her photos were serving the political goals she was fighting for. Or maybe she was simply too busy, working briefly as a spy in Poland, falling in love with a fellow Italian revolutionary, who — as rumor has it — might have been involved in the murder of her Cuban partner, back in Mexico. The story grows a bit hazy here.
Let’s be a little melancholic
What’s certain is that Tina made it back to Mexico, under a false name that she had adopted in Spain, where she volunteered for the international brigades in the fight against Franco’s fascism. We also know that she died in Mexico, when she was just 46 years old. Her heart failed while she was riding a taxi. It was 1942, war was raging across the world, and it was just 21 years after the shutter clicked to take that portrait.
We know that Tina Modotti experiences the tragedies, upheavals of many lifetimes in those 21 years. But let’s just imagine that there was also some joy. Let’s imagine that her portrait, partly dark and partly bright, captured the nuances of the life she was about to lead. And let’s just be melancholic about this unlikely photographer who outgrew not just her portrait, but also photography itself.
Tina Modotti’s grave in Mexico City bears an epitaph written by Pablo Neruda:
March 6, 2017
Pure your gentle name, pure your fragile life,
bees, shadows, fire, snow, silence and foam,
combined with steel and wire and
pollen to make up your firm
and delicate being.