If perusing someone’s personal library is a way to understand their inner world, browsing the photo archive of one of 20th century’s most important artistic figures is a bonanza for understanding the visual world from which their art came. Surprisingly enough, we didn’t have access privileges to Frida Kahlo’s visual archive until recently. The book Frida Kahlo: Her Photos shows it for the first time. Divided in several sections (“Mother”, “Father”, “Casa Azul”, “The Broken Body”, “Political Action”, etc), it encompasses family pictures, photographs taken of her, by her, given to her. For someone who so carefully crafted her image in so many ways, who made herself into a character of a larger story that is only partially contained in her art, the archive is an indispensable tool for understanding Frida as a work of art herself.
I’ve always wondered why she wasn’t a photographer to the degree she was a painter. Her father and grandfather were, after all, and she had a close relationship with some of the most important photographer artists who put in motion the post-revolutionary Mexican cultural renaissance. And let’s not forget the powerful role photography played in the Mexican social and political upheavals of the early 20th century. However, even though much photographed, even though her large public persona was so much due to the photographs of her published everywhere, we didn’t have any pictures she actually took. This book reveals just a little in this respect. She only signed three of them, in 1929; it’s safe to attribute some others to her as they follow themes and visual strategies found in her art.
Still, the collection is important not just as evidence of her own photographic skills or for the little-known family pictures. They are revealing, too, in showing her ability to understand how an image works, starting at a very early age: in her childhood intuitive posing, in her awareness of her gaze, in her father’s numerous introspective self-portraits it is easy to spot the artistic style she would develop or acquire from her heritage before she even called herself an artist. One group photo of her mother’s family shows, for example, the Victorian dress we see in her self-portrait “Las Dos Fridas”. In the later photos others took of her or gave to her (by Brassai, Modotti, Weston, Ray) we can find not just motifs we know from her later paintings, but also inspiration and artistic influence. Photography was just inextricably intertwined with her art and her self.
In sum, this book should be the number 1 tool for all Frida Kahlo researchers. However, it is of enormous interest to all her admirers as an artist, woman and intellectual figure. A crucial piece in the puzzle called Frida.