Thursday, 2 February 2012

Can photography kill?

Maybe it's because I have stuck with studying Tina Modotti, whose life reads like soap opera, that I am concerned with the potential that can be associated with an image. Looking at her work more closely I can see that there might be potent subversive and political messages, contrived by composition, in her work. If so, they can only come from her and not her photographic mentor Weston, who appears not to have much truck with politics.
A couple of images come to mind: El Machete depicts a group of "peasants" surrounding a newspaper and ostensibly reading it. The newspaper is the voice of the Mexican Communist Party, it's signature emblem, the hammer and sickle (part of the title banner on the newspaper) sits almost centre of the photograph. The headline reads "Toda la Tierra, no Pedazos de Tierra", which translates as:  "All the Land, not Pieces of Land". Six men around one newspaper. What does this signify? Well on first sight I saw this "just" as a piece of reportage, the peasants - the proletariat - connecting with the "voice" of the people. The two - paper and people - are intertwined, the one is connected inextricably to the other.
What I didn't immediately take in was a second level of sub-text, which is that Mexican peasantry was largely illiterate. However the people who came to see exhibitions, who paid to see pictures that people like Modotti created were literate and what this picture says, very clearly, is that the Mexican peasants are gaining literacy and are reading about communism. The photograph was taken in 1928, eight years after the "official" end of the Mexican revolution which had failed to deliver emancipation for the masses; now they were reading about Marxist theory that suggests that the land "belongs" to them, the people, as well as the means of production. However the body language of the "readers" do not seem "right" to me. Clearly some are the wrong side of the paper, but the more I look the more they seem staged and on closer inspection one of the "viewers" at the top of the image is actually looking to the camera - which devalues the image, from that aspect, considerably for me.
Perhaps a more powerful image taken by Modotti, is that of her lover's typewriter which when I first saw it thought - well this is an interesting, if not, utilitarian image of her lovers typewriter. It surely represents a very significant part of her lover's life, it was with this that Mella described his views on the revolution (or the revolution to be in Cuba) and an instrument that is an extension of his personality and political expressionism. Mella was a revolutionary, a Comintern, he needed to make speeches, he needed to write pieces for newspapers, for periodicals and thus the photograph, the image, of the typewriter was a natural instrument to represent a significant part of his life. A part of him. What I hadn't realised, until I read Albers biography Shadows, Fire, Snow The Life of Tina Modotti was that the words on the typewriter were part of a text by Trotsky that links Art and Politics by talking of the synthesis between art and revolution. Margaret Hooks reading of it in her biography Tina Modotti: Photographer and Revolutionary, that Modotti's "use of the photograph as the means of reproduction can be read as a powerful pronouncement on the marriage of art and politics."
The words state " a synthesis...exists between the..." this only matters because the prevailing spirit in the Mexican communist party, the support from Stalinist Russia, the Cuban revolutionary position were all Stalinist and almost as opposed to Trotskyism as they were to Capitalism. It would therefore been seen as a transgressive act. Could Modotti have signed her lover Mella's death warrant by publishing this as he was assassinated within a couple of months of this photograph being taken? Probably not as Machado (Cuba's dictator) had previously tried to have Mella assassinated.
Last picture is one of Modotti's most famous and certainly the one most widely reproduced. It is of Mella whose death presaged Modotti's decline as a photographer and rise as a political activist/Comintern and  whose art was eradicated by Stalinism and the need for conformity to the cause of Joe's totalitarian vision. Whether Tina's photographs contributed to the death of her lover, probably no-one knows, but his death certainly contributed to the demise of Modotti as a photographer. And I think there is a direct link between the two.

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