For decades, she was known primarily as Edward Weston''s lover, model and muse. Yet as evidenced by the traveling exhibition of her photographs opening Saturday at the National Steinbeck Center, Tina Modotti is more than deserving of her growing reputation as an accomplished artist in her own right--one whose photographs indelibly captured the spirit and dignity of the Mexican people.
Modotti and Weston: Mexicanidad, a traveling show organized by the George Eastman House International Museum of Photography and Film, is in fact a joint exhibition of photographs by Edward Weston and Modotti, but it is Modotti''s images that surprise and really capture the imagination of the viewer.
Despite having photographed for little more than seven years, Modotti produced an enduring body of work that demonstrates an uncanny understanding of photography''s inherent ability to transform "realism" into transcendent truth.
Although she was fortunate to have Weston as a teacher and mentor, it is clear that Modotti brought her own vision and conviction to her work.
Many of her images reflect the formal and graphic elements that characterized so much of Weston''s groundbreaking work shot in Mexico. While Modotti shares some of Weston''s fascination with the monumental and abstract elements of the objective world, her political activism and passionate commitment to social justice remain the guiding principle behind her craft, and bring a compassionate understanding of the Mexican people that stand in contrast to Weston''s primary interest in abstract/formalistic imagery.
Among the approximately 65 vintage photographs by Modotti and Weston from 1920''s Mexico, it is Modotti''s portraiture of women, children and Mexican daily life that most powerfully present that critical juncture in its history when post-revolutionary Mexico rejected colonialism and the legacy of Spanish rule to forge a new cultural identity that embraced the heritage of Mexico''s indigenous past.
Among the images by Weston, there are many well-known ones that stand as early but seminal examples of his modernist approach to photography, including photos of the typical Mexican bars called pulquerias, his iconic image of a toilet, and numerous portraits of such luminaries as muralist Diego Rivera and Modotti herself.
Modotti and Weston''s three-year stay in Mexico, from 1923-''26, was a critical period not only in terms of Modotti''s personal and political development, but in terms of Weston''s artistic development as well.
The Italian-born Modotti had been a sometime stage and film actress before she met Weston in Hollywood and agreed to go with him to Mexico. In exchange for her help managing his studio and portrait business, Weston agreed to give Modotti lessons in photography. Modotti''s influence on Weston extended way beyond her business help, and it was through Modotti as muse and model that Weston was introduced to the major players in Mexico''s art scene.
Mexico was going through an exciting and turbulent time when bold expressions of nationalism were being forged in Mexican schools, among the working classes, and particularly among artists like Rivera and Jose Clemente Orozco who were painting monumental murals on the walls of public buildings throughout the country.
As an avowed communist and political activist, Modotti was deeply drawn to and transformed by the struggles of the Mexican people, and used her undeniable talents as a photographer to help express the dignity and justice of the people''s cause. She ultimately abandoned photography to devote herself solely to radical politics. She was eventually deported in 1930 by the Mexican government, but would later return only to die prematurely at age 45.
The exhibition of her work at the Steinbeck Center stands not only as a testament to a little-known and under-appreciated artist, but as a tribute to a people and country that continues to capture the imagination and souls of everyone concerned with the struggle for social justice.
Modotti and Weston: Mexicanidad, opens Friday at the National Steinbeck Center in Salinas with free public admission from 6-7pm.