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UBC Theses and Dissertations

Los Indios and the Pan-American solution : the photography of modotti and strand : defining Mexicanness Taplay, Calvin


Two bodies of photographic production are the focus of this thesis: a show entitled La Exposition Fotografica de Tina Modotti of 1929 and a portfolio entitled Paul Strand: Photographs of Mexico of 1933. These images are interesting and important because they mark the boundaries of a representational system in Mexico. The Mexican government encouraged this system that Roger Bartra would later refer to as the homo mexicanus (the spirit of the modern Mexican). Through the representation of the homo mexicanus, the Indian became a metaphor for the nation. Modotti and Strand used the Indian to construct identity from different perspectives to that of the government and each other. To locate critiques of a government that used "Revolutionary" rhetoric yet simultaneously suppressed Leftist expression, it is imperative to differentiate the variations of the homo mexicanus. Through this analysis, my aim is to demonstrate which forms supported the status quo, and which were transgressive. La Exposition Fotografica de Tina Modotti marked a rupture between the national government and an intellectual Left associated with the Mexican Communist Party. The exhibition brought to the surface a competing representation of the Homo Mexicanus to the one proposed by the government through its Secretariat of Education. My analysis compares Modotti's representation of the Indian as universal proletariat with the secretariat's representation of the Indian as an embodiment of the state. What this exhibition demonstrates is how conflicts surrounding the Secretariat of Education and different factions of the Left were structured through representation. The tensions were highlighted by Modotti's particular form of "straight" photographic production, and the framing of subject matter (the trabajadores [or workers] and indigenous communities). Modotti's photography established its identity within an environment marked by the competing structures of the Secretariat of Education, the publication Contemporaneos, the Mexican Communist Party, and the Comintern. These institutions used representations of indigenous people transformed into symbols of the Indian to produce claims for the true representation of these communities. A transition in Mexican society and its government occurred between 1929 and 1933. I examine this to explain the shift in visual strategies between Modotti's and Strand's production. This transition was largely a result of the Great Depression and the consequent rise of totalitarianism in Europe. Unlike Modotti who had identified with the Comintern, I argue that Strand's work partly embodied the Pan-Americanist politics of the federal administrations of the United States and Mexico. Starting in 1932, a nexus of reform liberal American intellectuals focused on a representation of marginalized communities using the ideals of Pan-Americanism. The federal governments of the United States and Mexico used the symbols of the "forgotten man" and the "Indian" to demonstrate the hardships brought on by laissez-faire capitalism. Consequently, the governments wanted workers to identify themselves with these representations and each government's respective reform policies.

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