Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Edward Weston Remembers Tina Modotti, January 1942

I have recently been doing much research in Edward Weston's Daybooks due to their amazing content chronicling the intertwined lives of the L.A.'s early Bohemian, avant-garde artists, architects and intelligentsia. Today while trying to track down where the original unexpurgated manuscripts might reside I ran across the below Edward Weston reminiscence written on the occasion of learning of the January 5, 1942 death of his former lover Tina Modotti with whom he traveled to Mexico with between 1923 and 1926. (See below).

Tina and Edward on the boat to Mexico, 1923. Photo likely by Chandler Weston. From Tina Modotti: Photographer and Revolutionary by Margaret Hooks, p. 70

I have illustrated the article with Weston's photos from various sources based on his textual descriptions. Weston indicates in the article that the last two photos are the only ones that exist of the two together. The last entry in Weston's published Daybooks is dated April 22, 1944 after a gap of almost 10 years since the previous entry. The last entry covers a brief recap of his major life events over that period including the deaths of those closest to him including Tina but omits this extremely poignant piece. Thank god for his neighbor Dewitt Hughes for resurrecting this from Weston's Wildcat Hill trash can.

The Lost Entry:  from the daybooks of Edward Weston (click link for source)

"Editor's note:
The following manuscript was discovered by a certain Dewitt Hughes, a neighbor of the great photographer during his years in his beloved Point Lobos, Calif., who was in the habit of perusing the great man's refuse in search of discarded photographic prints. Instead, he came across the following entry, which clearly bears the scars of its removal from Mr. Weston's daybook. The missing entry is quite obvious in the original manuscript and has perplexed scholars for years, as to its contents and the reasons for its expurgation. The entry is reproduced in its entirety, and its content has not been altered in any way, except for a few technical adaptations that were made for the convenience of the contemporary reader.

This morning I received post from Mexico informing me of the death of Tina Modotti. I had been dreaming of Tina and those heady days back in Mexico throughout the night, and awoke bolt upright at the crack of dawn. Forgoing my morning oblations, I headed straight for the cellar, where the negatives from those years had been lying dormant since my first return from Mexico. Ironically, I had been printing a portrait of Robo when the postman rang. It was a shot I remembered as soon as I saw the negative in its sleeve. I could picture clearly in my mind everything surrounding the taking of that photograph: the smell of Robo's hair tonic commingling with the daffodils Tina had purchased from a local florist, and which Robo had been busy painting the entire morning. I remembered Robo's protest when I suggested he clean himself up a bit before I photographed him, and the look Tina shot in my direction as I peered into the ground glass. There we were, Robo and I, connected all too intimately in the brief moment of the shutter's release. And there was Tina, the objective observer, watching her husband's soul be stolen by her lover. (See below).

Edward Weston, Robo de Richey, ca. 1920. From Weston's Westons: Portraits and Nudes by Theodore E. Stebbins, Jr. Bulfinch, 1989, p. 14.Collection Center for Creative Photography. ©1981 Arizona Board of Regents. 

Tina Modotti and Robo de Richey at work in their studio, Hollywood, 1921. Photo by Walter Frederick Seely. Hooks, p. 36. Originally published in California Southland, November, 1921, p. 19.

So, you can imagine the eerie feeling I had when I received the news. Sure enough, Robo's ghost had returned to haunt me. The tables had been turned: the first time we had been in Mexico, Tina and I, hearing the news of Robo's death in California, and now here we were, myself and Robo's Likeness in California, receiving news of Tina's death in Mexico. The cruel symmetry of Fate. There was nothing I could do but return to the darkroom and watch the images of those days materialize under the ripples of developer, pose by pose, frame by frame, and summon Tina from them like a necromancer.

Edward Weston, Tina El Buen Retiro, Tacubaya, 1923. From Edward Weston, 1886-1958, edited by Manfred Heiting, Taschen, 1999, p. 59. Collection Center for Creative Photography. ©1981 Arizona Board of Regents.

Tina is wearing a translucent silk blouse that is heavily embroidered over the breast. Her hair is pulled straight back and shiny. She sits on the steps of the hacienda, where the late afternoon sun is shining. There are trees directly outside the window, from which the sun is entering. They act like a negative, the handiwork of the supreme photographer, subduing the light, filtering part of it, redirecting the rest onto the light sensitive paper that is Tina. On the ground glass she seems to glow.

Edward Weston, Tina Reciting, 1924. From Edward Weston, 1886-1958, edited by Manfred Heiting, Taschen, 1999, p. 63. Collection Center for Creative Photography. ©1981 Arizona Board of Regents.

Tina is reciting poetry. She believes that, being an artist, I appreciate the arts in general, and being a Romantic, that I enjoy poetry in particular. She is mistaken. Tina is driven by impulse and I am old and weary and all too happy to escape into her naivete. She recites a poem in Italian about her two lovers, one a strident revolutionary she met on her travels in the countryside, and the other a married man with three children living in sin with a foreign woman in a foreign country. And that is the beauty of it. The poetry of her honesty. Yet, it is still such a crushing blow.

I photograph what I cannot possess. I inscribe in silver what eludes me in reality. Tina is sunbathing on the azotea of the hacienda. I have been writing correspondences to the art world in the United States, to remind them that I am still alive and photographing. I take leave of my study for a breath of fresh air, and steal upon Tina sunbathing on the worn stone tiles. I quickly head back for the Graflex, quietly set the tripod in place, align the camera to the most advantageous position, all without interrupting the silence of Tina 's repose.

Edward Weston, Tina on the Azotea, 1924. From Weston's Westons, p. 124. Collection Center for Creative Photography. ©1981 Arizona Board of Regents.

There she is, hand covering her eyes from the sun, her dark brown nipples standing erect, nearly matching the hue of the blanket beneath her. I peer through the glass. My hand reaches for the cable release. Tina is angelic, an angel drifting in the realm of angels. Ecstatically, I squeeze the release.

"Are you finished now," Tina says.
"You pretender. I thought you were asleep," I say.
"I was, until you came along with all your racket. Did you really think I could still be asleep?"
"Come now, I wasn't as bad as all that."
She sits up, still covering her eyes. Her breasts fall like fruit onto her belly. "Do you want to take anymore? How should I sit?"'
"What's the point now?" I say, trying to outdo her. "You've ruined the mood. I think I'll even have to destroy the negative."
"You must be mad. Why?"
"It would be dishonest not to."
"Nobody will ever know the difference," she says as she leans back onto her elbows, supine and seductive.
"No, I suppose they never will."

Edward Weston, Tina on the Azotea, 1924. From Weston's Westons, back cover. Collection Center for Creative Photography. ©1981 Arizona Board of Regents.

Tina is a conundrum, but she is never cunning. She is always Tina. No matter that she offers a different self for every photographic plate I load into the camera, she remains herself. I can see so clearly now, with the passage of time, that it is I who saw her differently.

Here is Tina in the flower of her youth. She is dressed in black, surrounded by a black background, her profile emerging from the darkness. Her hair is off her face. Having just been released from a pin that held it back in place, it hangs precariously over her shoulders, on the verge of submitting to nature. Her eyes are fixed on something far away and contain a sadness that seems beyond her years. She is twenty five years old. I am forty one. She and Robo have been together for six years, and married for four. In this photograph I have captured something too private and true and yet she is little more than a stranger to me. I immediately fell in love with her.

Edward Weston, The White Iris, 1921. Hooks, p. 49Collection Center for Creative Photography. ©1981 Arizona Board of Regents.

The same photograph has reached me today, from Mexico. I have not seen it for twenty years. Actually, what I have before me is a photograph of Tina's bier, in which is mounted this same photograph surrounded by a wreath of flowers. Here lies Tina Modotti, a firm and delicate being. And from under the black focusing cloth it was I who created her death mask, her travel companion throughout her life's journey from Mexico to Germany to Russia to Spain and then back to Mexico again. Tina never asked for another one of my prints. It is as if she were aware of the significance of its final destination.

Edward Weston, Tina Modotti with tear, 1924. From Daybooks of Edward Weston, I. Mexico, p. 43. Collection Center for Creative Photography. ©1981 Arizona Board of Regents.

We are on our way to a party. Tina has been crying. There she stands, defiant, a swelling tear in her eye that gives her away. She gives me a cold, steely stare that looks right through me. Here eyes seem to see more than what is given to them. It's this eye that would see through other people and other places when she later turned the camera from herself onto the world.

"You are a such a selfish man," she says, turning to me.
"And how is that?"
"How is that? You only care about yourself, that's how. You and that camera," she says, turning away again.
"You know that's not true. You're the one who is being selfish."
"Oh, so I guess I'm being selfish when I say that it's only fair for me to fuck once in a while too, is that it? What do you expect me to do? act like we 're married?"
"Isn't that what you want?"
"You're impossible."

When we arrive at the party Tina greets Diego with a kiss on the lips. It is a costume party and Tina is dressed as Edward Weston, mustache and all, and I am dressed as Tina Modotti, skirt, high heels, lipstick. Diego is our host, and is dressed, characteristically enough, as himself. Diego accepts the kiss, giving me a wink, and then walks into the living room arm in arm with Tina.

"May I present to you, ladies and gentleman, the great American photographer, Edward Weston," he says, introducing Tina.

Everyone bows and greets her cordially, shaking her hand very gentleman-like. It is all very ridiculous, but Tina plays the part rather well, looking a bit obtuse, sternly shaking the men's hands, chivalrously kissing the ladies'. I try my best to do play my part, but fumble around terribly in the heels. Martin, seeing my distress, comes and takes me by the arm and helps me along into the kitchen behind Diego and Tina.

Edward Weston, Diego Rivera, 1924.  From Daybooks of Edward Weston, I. Mexico, p. 43. Collection Center for Creative Photography. ©1981 Arizona Board of Regents.

Recently, Tina has begun modeling for Diego once again. As everyone knows, Diego is a monstrous womanizer. But Tina assures me that their relationship is entirely platonic. Still, it seems to me that he is now holding her rather closely, while pretending, for the delectation of those who swarmed into the kitchen behind us, to treat her like another man.

As we enter the kitchen, Diego calls out to Guadalupe, "Look, Lupe, Edward is here. Look how his hair is thickening." He runs his obese hand over her head as if he were petting a supine cat. Guadalupe, in turn, gives him a stern look, confirming my suspicions.

"And who is this?" she says, pointing to me with one hand while she wipes the other on her apron. "His friend's whore?"

Edward Weston, Guadalupe Marin de Rivera, 1924.  From Daybooks of Edward Weston, I. Mexico, p. 11. Collection Center for Creative Photography. ©1981 Arizona Board of Regents.

Guadalupe storms out of the room. Diego follows her upstairs, were they proceed to scream at one another. Tina looks at me, as Tina now, entirely herself. She unties the ribbon at the back of her hair and lets it down, the grease still holding it in place while the length of it shoots down her back. She comes to me and places a hand on my stomach. I reach for the wig on my head, but decide it's best not to bother.

Detail of Tina in Diego Rivera mural, Chapingo, 1926. Hooks, p. 116.

When we arrive home I ask her why she has lied to me. She tells me that she hasn't, that deep inside I knew, and that it was unnecessary to make matters worse. And she is correct. She stands there as strong and as delicate as her image on one of Diego's frescoes. (See above). This is the Tina I have never been able to capture. This is the Tina that hands out arms and munitions to the people in order to fight for the cause; this is the Tina that will live without fear during the Spanish Civil War, braving bullets, mortar shells, death itself. This is not my Tina. This is not Tina, Edward's protege, best student, budding photographer in the tradition of the American photo-succession. No, this is Diego's Tina, the Tina of the Communist party, of the people's cause; this is Tina the martyr.

Tina's corpse, January 1942. Hooks, p. 266.

Today, however, I received news that she died not as a martyr but as an aging, beautiful fallen woman. The Mexican dailies ran the story as the "untimely death of a world class beauty and odalisque." The telegram said that she died of a heart attack in a Mexican taxicab. Of course, there are rumors to the contrary, probably spread by those in the Party who do not wish to see her memory die. I wonder if anyone will ever remember Tina Modotti. If they do, will they remember her beauty or her strength? I for my part can only remember her with regret. For me, she is a symbol of my utter defeat.

After going through my negatives it occurred to me that there wasn't a single one of Tina and I together. At first I began to despair, to wonder if it were all a dream. But then I remembered the photographs we had taken on a lark in a portrait studio in Mexico City. We had spent the rest of what little money we had strolling through the various marketplaces in Mexico City. There was music everywhere, singing and dancing on every dusty street. The hucksters were hawking there wares: chickens in makeshift coops, their legs secured to a post to prevent escape, fruit of every color imaginable--piles upon piles of pineapples, mangoes, oranges, watermelons--porcelain figurines, called animales de barro, brilliantly colored serapes, straw mats, tapestry. 

As if by accident we stumbled upon one of those portraitists you find in places like Mexico City, photographs of their work displaying what they believe to be the latest trends in their spotty showcases. There were a few different studios clustered in one area, so we studied the various displays and decided on one which we thought best--that is, the one that seemed the most ridiculous.

The photographer turned out to be quite a sight himself. He wore bifocals that made his eyes look disproportionately large. He wore an old suit that was covered with small holes and stains. He greeted us cordially and asked, "In what way may I be of service to the Senor and Senorita?"

"Senor," Tina said. "We have just been married today."

Tina interrupted him mid-phrase, "El Senor is very religious, perhaps you can make it with a church in the background."The gentleman's face lit up like a gaslight. He began suggesting various poses and backdrops that were appropriate for such an occasion, that no less than a series of three photographs was befitting of a new couple of our apparent rank. And so on and so on.

Tina Modotti and Edward Weston, "Anniversary", Mexico, 1924. Photographer unknown. From Edward Weston, 1886-1958, edited by Manfred Heiting, Taschen, 1999, p. 246).

Sure enough, a church background was put into place, the photographer all the while assuring the Senora of the great artistry of his methods. And soon, we stood in front of the hilarious sets, trying our best to play the newlywed bourgeois couple, holding our poses as stiff as we could, as if the exposure required us to remain fixed for long periods of time.

Is it possible to find tenderness in our mockery of this genre, of the institution of marriage itself? Can one find in our stiff embrace any hint of our mutual passion? Did that preposterous photographer know more than he let on? Maybe he was actually sly as a fox, and had captured us more truly than we had thought possible. Perhaps he was indeed a great artist after all. It may be that it was he who had managed, after all, to capture the thing itself." (Lost Edward Weston Daybook entry from

I happened upon the below "anniversary" photo taken at the same sitting in the highly recommended Frida Kahlo: Her Photos edited by and seemingly related postcard later below on the back cover of The Letters From Tina Modotti to Edward Weston by Amy Stark.

Tina Modotti and Edward Weston, "Anniversary", Mexico, 1924. Photographer unknown. From Frida Kahlo: Her Photos, edited by Pablo Ortiz Monasterio, Editorial RM, 2010, p. 403).

Margaret Hooks wrote of the event in her excellent Modotti biography,
"On the anniversary of their first year in Mexico, at Tina's suggestion she and Edward went to a professional photographer to have a joke 'wedding anniversary' portrait made. Tina coyly holds a dusty bunch of plastic flowers against her cheek as the happy couple poses against a romantic backdrop, both trying desperately to control their mirth." (From Tina Modotti: Photographer and Revolutionary by Margaret Hooks, p. 92).
Postcard, n.d., inscribed in Tina Modotti's handwriting, "Tina - wristwatch and ring. Edward - Sunday suit." from the back cover of "The Letters from Tina Modotti to Edward Weston," The Archive, Number 22, January 1986. (Original postcard in the Edward Weston Archive, Center for Creative photography, University of Arizona).

The couple also possibly sent postcards inscribed by Tina (see above) to accompany the above photo announce their "wedding anniversary" to friends with such as Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera. (The first photo above was from Frida Kahlo's papers).

For much more on the Weston's and their interactions with the Schindler Kings Road circle see my

Schindlers-Westons-Kasheravoff-Cage and Their Avant-Garde Relationships

Edward Weston and Mabel Dodge Luhan Remember D. H. Lawrence and Selected Carmel-Taos Connections

Pauline Gibling Schindler: Vagabond Agent for Modernism, 1927-1936, and

The Sands of Time: The Oceano Dunes and the Westons