Weekly Wire
Austin Chronicle Snapshots on Photography

By Rebecca S. Cohen

OCTOBER 19, 1998:  Edward met Tina in California. He was a 37-year-old photographer, handsome, lean, and intense. She, an Italian beauty 10 years his junior, was an aspiring actress working in silent films. They became photographer and model, mentor and student. They became lovers. He was married with children when the two left for Mexico in 1923. She abandoned her husband.

The couple lived for a while in Mexico City where their circle of friends included Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera, Manuel Alvarez Bravo and David Alfaro Siqueiros, all of them participants in Mexico's extraordinary post-revolutionary explosion of cultural productivity known as the Mexicanidad. Both Edward Weston and Tina Modotti spent much of their time in Mexico taking photographs, some of which are currently on display at the Austin Museum of Art -- Downtown (AMOA). The exhibition provides an appetizer-size assortment of signature images and a couple of positively delicious formal portraits of the pair taken by a commercial photographer. Weston poses stiffly on a chair, and Modotti stands next to him holding a bouquet of flowers -- a photograph (rather than an exchange of vows) as proof of their love.

Edward Weston returned to the California area after about three years. His photographic career was forever changed as a result of his sojourn in Mexico. Tina Modotti was forever changed as well. She remained in Mexico until 1930, documenting the lives of peasants as part of her deepening involvement in social reform and Communist politics. She was asked to leave the country when authorities accused her (falsely) of murdering her revolutionary lover Julio Antonio Mella. For the next dozen years, she chased the Communist ideal across Europe. Then she returned to Mexico, where she died in 1942.

Maybe I've fallen prey to Austin's ubiquitous passion for pitching screenplays, but I think I've got a great idea for a movie here. As art critic, rather than film critic, however, let me point out that the photos on display at AMOA allude to an aesthetic dialogue and collaboration between two important 20th-century photographers. They easily stand alone without the accompanying feature film plot.

"Women of Tehuantapec"
photograph by Tina Modotti
Weston's overriding photographic concern was capturing the "quintessence" of the subject he was photographing -- whether a tree trunk or porcelain toilette or the nude female form. Most of the photographs he made in Mexico lack any (tourist-y) sense of place but show great concern for the artistic integrity of the final image. Two side-by-side Weston photos of rooftops provide insight into the photographer's approach and formal concerns.

The earlier of the two, taken in 1924, is a warm-toned platinum print. According to the museum, this photo portrays "a play of geometric planes ... and the patterns inscribed by light and shadow." The photographer tilted his camera, so there are no vertical lines to help orient the viewer; everything is slanted a little or a lot. Because of the brown tones perhaps, I thought at first that I might be looking at a desert tent rather than architecture. Shadows appear as solid as stucco walls. The photographer provides no context, no sense of where these rooftops are. The resulting image is not about Weston's neighborhood but about light and shadow and geometry, and perhaps it is also about the photographer's personal sense of dislocation.

In 1925, Weston photographed those same Mexico City rooftops again. The resulting gelatin silver print's cool black-and-white tones provide a different mood right away, and the photograph is much busier. Now, sheets hang from a balustrade, a striped towel has been tossed over the brick ledge in the foreground -- signs of life. The photographer has expanded his field of vision and now we see a street below, storefronts, a tree-lined boulevard. But even with all the added detail, the picture appears even more orderly now that there are horizontal and perpendicular references. The tilt is gone. Nothing appears to be listing off to the side, slipping from the picture plane. Similar stairstep shadows suggest that the second photograph was taken around the same time of day as the first, but now the sensibility of the photographer has changed. This picture is still about geometric planes and a swooping curve, about light and dark and the arrangement of form, but this time, Weston hints at a sense of place. A year later, he left that place.

Modotti had different notions of what the proper subject of photography should be. She employed Weston's formal aesthetic in service to her political concerns; she photographed people in the midst of living their lives. The museum has reproduced an archetypal Modotti image -- a peasant woman with basket on her head -- large on the entry wall. Compared to the tiny gelatin silver print in the exhibition, you get a sense of how scale and the subtle tones of a finely produced print make a difference in how one perceives a certain image.

Modotti made a great number of photographs of the women in the village of Tehuantepec. The political act of acknowledging and recording their lives and their work (women's work -- carrying babies and baskets) was accomplished through composition and craft. According to the museum, she sent some prints to Weston in 1929 for an exhibition he was organizing, conveying with them her concern that the prints were not good enough. "All the exposures had to be done in such a hurry," she noted. "As soon as they saw me with the camera, the women would automatically increase their speed of walking; and they walk swiftly by nature."

photograph by Edward Weston

In one photograph, as if to overcome her subjects' reluctance, the photographer remains at a distance. The result, a tiny print, maybe two inches square, features two women with baskets on their heads standing in front of a brilliant white building. They are very, very far away, but a stone pathway that begins in the foreground leads us to them. The distance -- both physical and psychological -- between viewer and subject is sharply articulated by gray textured buildings that increasingly crowd in on either side of the walkway. This complex jewel of an image with beautifully organized light patterns and forms reflects well on her mentor. It is a photograph as full of intelligence and compressed energy as Modotti herself must have been.

Honey, I Shot the Kids ... and You're Next

I wondered, before I saw her photographs, whether Sally Mann would have gained national prominence if she'd taken photographs of someone else's naked children rather than her own. Or if she'd dressed them up a bit before snapping the shutter (or turned their backsides to the camera). Or if she'd concentrated only on empty landscapes of her beloved South, and not her beloved children.

But after seeing two exhibitions of her work, one in New York and the current show called "Still Time" at AMOA -- Laguna Gloria, I believe Mann was destined for recognition (and praise!) with or without that particular body of her work. Her photographs -- whether romantic landscapes or sly glances from strangers or family members -- contain hauntingly beautiful images. They are, in fact, universally accessible (whether we like it or not) because they are so very personal.

The most interesting photograph to me is The Last Time Emmett Modeled Nude (1987), which represents a bridge between Mann's various obsessions, Southern landscape and Southern folk. Emmett, the photographer's son -- a beautiful young man who is perhaps nine years old in this particular black-and-white photograph -- challenges the camera with a stare. Rather than being fully exposed, he appears to be "wearing" the lake or the pond -- whatever body of water he's standing in -- around his middle, emerging like a young god from his surroundings, dark waters and a mysterious wood. The setting foreshadows the masterful, murky, child-free photos of Virginia and Georgia that Mann took in the mid-Nineties and which comprise "Mother Land," an exhibition and catalog prepared by the Edwynn Houk Gallery in New York.

photograph by Sally Mann

I was sorry to have missed the photographer's September 20 lecture here in Austin. I was told that she showed slides of "personal photographs" as well as other works she makes for public consumption. It is intriguing to imagine how Mann might distinguish the personal from the public, given her body of work. Her next series, my informant went on to say, deals with relationships between men and women and -- you guessed it -- she will be photographing her own husband and herself.

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