Shooting the Present

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Review of "Tina Modotti and Edward Weston: The Mexico Years", Barbican, until 1 August

In the 1920s European art was in the middle of a revolution which would end in what is now known as modernism. Yet in another part of the world an equally significant though less well documented artistic revolution was taking place. The Mexican Revolution in the early 1900s became a beacon of hope to millions of poor people across Latin America, and a noble cause to many on the left, especially in the US.

Among those who flocked to the excitement and hope of post-revolutionary Mexico were Tina Modotti and Edward Weston, avant-garde photographers who collaborated professionally and were briefly lovers. This exhibition covers the years the couple spent in Mexico, and is a fascinating insight into the world they found themselves in, the artistic and political debates, the thrill of the struggle, and the sense that something was happening that could really change the world for the better.

These changes are reflected, rather than represented, in the work on display here, so you shouldn't go expecting an illustrated account of the revolution. Though of course much of the work seen here is indeed documentary, especially that of Modotti, who seems to have taken the task to heart of melding strict artistic formalism with a determination to depict the reality of the revolution. Indeed, of the two, her commitment to the revolution seems to have been the firmer.

From a technical point of view these photos are faultless. Artistically they are groundbreaking, having such an impact on modern photography and ways of seeing that sometimes you have to remind yourself of the fact, so familiar and accepted have their ideas and vision become. The quality of the prints is extremely high, and there is a depth and texture to the images which is a delight to see in itself.

The exhibition is also an absorbing story of how the revolution drew individuals into its orbit. Modotti's personal journey from silent movie starlet into paid-up Communist Party member and artist is the stuff of novels, and the way that she so convincingly mastered photography to the point where she became one of its greatest exponents is inspirational.

Both Weston and Modotti took photos of their surroundings, and the people and things that filled their lives at this time. Sometimes the people are personalities known to them - artists or revolutionaries, they were friends and acquaintances, with a dazzling array of important figures - the muralist Orozco and the Russian revolutionary Alexandra Kollontai among them. Sometimes the subjects they choose seem more like archetypes or ideals - the peasant woman or revolutionary with a flag. They were obviously fascinated by Mexico and the revolution, but their work is never 'quaint' and avoids any kind of 'Orientalist' fascination in strange foreigners. This is a great exhibition - see it if you can.