I found myself watching Frida, Julie Taymor’s acclaimed film about the life of Frida Kahlo, after many years. One of my favourite scenes comes early on, a party organised in the house of the Italian-born photographer Tina Modotti. Some heavy drinking and steamy girl-only dancing happens (those radicals really do throw fantastic parties) – it’s the sort of mix of creative people, people with idealistic, revolutionary political opinions, and liberality of ideas we probably all dream of surrounding ourselves with. Free from the daily grind of nine to five. Modotti of the film is a glamorous, glamorous woman, a salon hostess and sort of aristocratic revolutionary, and we only get a small glimpse of her photos; this is not a film about her or her work, even if that work has had greater influence on me than any painting of Kahlo ever.
I first saw an exhibition of Modotti’s work about 15 years ago, and no art show has ever had the same impact before or after. The pictures on display were small prints, many not more than two inches by inches in size, faded sepia in colour. There were hundreds of them, and I looked at every one of them, sometimes going back to pictures I had already seen for a second look, wandering in the half-darkness of the exhibition rooms in circles. This show stayed with me – haunted me – for a long time, and left me with an enduring love for early photographic art. The kit Modotti and her contemporaries used was primitive by today’s standard, yet they used it to a great effect – the simplicity of the medium, the price of film, forced them to consider every frame they shot – they couldn’t afford to throw anything away.
While Kahlo looked into herself for inspiration, painting her own inner landscapes, Modotti expressed social and political views in her work. She photographed factory and farm workers, indigenous people, her revolutionary friends, wanting to combine the minimalistic, modern aesthetics she had learnt from Edward Weston with subjects from real life, rather than creating purely abstract images. The love she had for what she saw is present in every image she took. The simplicity of her pictures forces one to see the picture, see the intent, the idea behind it. This is photography in its purest form, not mere sport with shiny toys, with the most critical eye set on the technical merit of a picture, a camera, a lens.
I always wanted to take pictures like those of Modotti – never had quite the eye she had, or drive, or the passion she had in the things she believed in. Imitation is easy – and pointless:
(Love the crack in the paint, the single thing perfectly in focus.) Saying something, creating words or images that come from true, honest feeling and thoughts and ideas, is so much harder. And takes so much more than a good camera – even if buying my first DSLR was the best thing I ever did.