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Important Art by Tina Modotti
Roses, Mexico, is an extreme close-up of four roses. Cropped to fill the frame from edge to edge, this is not a traditional still-life photograph of roses arranged in a vase. Here, the roses lay prone and slightly wilted, just beyond their prime, thus reflecting the passage of time and the ephemerality of delicate blooms. Much like a traditional vanitas still life that asked the viewer to contemplate mortality by reflecting on the fleeting nature of material objects, Roses brings this subject to modern photography. As photography historian Carol Armstrong notes, Roses "calls on the line of figural abstraction identified, not with [Alfred] Stieglitz, [Paul] Strand and the 'straight' photograph, but with Georgia O'Keeffe and her blown-up genital flowers, which like [Edward] Weston's single-object photographs reduced the flora still-life that had been the traditional purview of the female painter to one (or two or four) item(s), expanded to fill the entire field of the image."
The theme of the still-life preoccupied Modotti throughout much of her brief photography career. A relative newcomer to photography, she made use of the still-life photograph as a means to work through various formal issues including composition, framing, light, pattern, and tone. At this time, she was working with a large-format camera, which was unwieldy, not easy to transport, and forced the photographer to carefully compose the image, rather than creating images on the move with a handheld camera. The still-life, which was easy to set up and did not alter, was the perfect vehicle for mastering the myriad technical complexities of a photograph.
Not only holding a mirror to the similar close-up flower paintings by Georgia O'Keeffe, Modotti's flower paintings also bare interesting comparison to the oeuvre of Imogen Cunningham, a fellow photographer with shared interest in both the subject of botany and in hands (as seen in Modotti's later puppeteer series).
In this 1925 photograph of isolated telephone wires, Modotti shifts the perspective, removing any reference to the ground that holds the telephone poles in place. Instead, the carefully composed image focuses on the angles and patterns produced by the wires and clouds, to create a work that mingles modernism and social concerns. During this period Mexico was undergoing increased modernization and industrialization, which Modotti symbolizes in her photograph of telephone wires. Modotti thus presents an optimistic view of Mexico's modernization and the promise of instant communication brought about by the installation of telephone systems that seemed to open up Mexico to the rest of the world.
Lauded by the Mexican avant-garde group, Estridentistas, who aligned their work with the Mexican Revolution and sought to modernize Mexico, Modotti's photograph was included in their journal Horizonte because it represented dynamism, technology, and progress. The photograph's framing and its use of oblique angles and unusual perspective, brought it into alignment with other modernist painters and photographers, including Paul Strand, Charles Sheeler, and Charles Demuth, but also with European avant-garde photographers like László Moholy-Nagy, Man Ray, and Albert Renger-Patzsch. Although the tendency to focus on the subject/object was characteristic of her former mentor Edward Weston's work, Diego Rivera praised Modotti's work as "more abstract, more ethereal, and even more intellectual" than Weston's.
A closely cropped image of a sea of sombreros, Workers Parade, much like her earlier photograph Roses, focuses in on the subject by eliminating all extraneous information. The politically charged subject matter, along with the unusual camera angle, attention to light and dark, and the texture and pattern produced by photographing the scene from above recalls the slightly later work of Alexander Rodchenko, and in particular, his Gathering for a Demonstration (1928). The ubiquitous sombrero would have been immediately recognizable to the Mexican viewer for its connection to the campesinos and trabajadores, the Mexican workers, who were gathered for the annual May Day parade in Mexico City. May Day, traditionally celebrated on the first of May, commemorates International Workers' Day, often with large parades and gatherings as a demonstration of solidarity among workers. This was a calendar event that Modotti had been familiar with since childhood due to her father's involvement in these very same parades.
Among Modotti's earliest politically motivated photographs, Workers Parade brings together her formal concerns with her interest in using art to express her political beliefs and her desire to make her photography socially relevant. On a symbolic level, as noted by Sarah Lowe, Worker's Parade conveys the power of unity by "suggesting that the source of power to make political changes lies with the peasants." This photograph signaled a turning point in Modotti's work toward a new modern form of photography that addressed contemporary issues and events in order to instigate and effect change.