Tina Modotti, Bandolier, corn, sickle, 1927
Tina Modotti’s Communist still life made a big impression on me as a photography student. It was a case of the sum being greater than its parts. On the face of it, it’s a simple arrangement of three ordinary objects, though a very nice one on purely pictorial terms. But the objects, which at first may seem prosaic, are in reality full of meaning when viewed in the context of Mexican politics in the early 20th century. I remember being struck by how a photograph of ordinary objects could somehow magically stand for a big idea.
The photograph was one of several Modotti made in 1927, the year she joined the Mexican Communist Party and began a relationship with the Mexican revolutionary Xavier Guerrero. Modotti had learned photography with her lover Edward Weston who was himself a master of the still life. Then, as she came under the sway of radical left politics, her subject matter turned toward proletarian themes.
In this image, the objects are symbols. The sickle quotes the trademark symbol of the communist party, the hammer and sickle. The corn is the staple food of Mexico and stands for an oppressed peasantry. The bandolier is a familiar article of Mexican revolution. Wrapped together as a monogram, the photograph becomes a call to arms, like a banner or a slogan. The image was once described as “a perfect synthesis of a great ideology”
Modotti was frequently scratching for money when she embraced Communism, so it’s particularly ironic that a vintage print was sold at auction in 2005 for $120,000.