In Paris recently I went to see a small exhibit of photographs taken by Tina Modotti. Upstairs in the gallery, the harried mood of the Rue de Rennes rapidly peeled away. I was startled by the beauty of the images Modotti made and the impact of her life story. In one photograph, a line of Mexican men, mostly workers or peasants, stand staring at the camera. They have assembled at the headquarters of the Communist party in Mexico. One of them is holding a flag taken from the United States Army by the first Sandinistas in Nicaragua. The moment is a victory and you can see this in the men’s faces. But the camera’s eye also catches a tender quality of innocence and hope, an expression one so seldom sees any longer even on the faces of any but the youngest children.
One might say that life is so difficult now, or that there has been so much violence in this century that innocence is no longer possible. But this explanation is too easy. The lives of the men in this photograph were undoubtedly very difficult and violence was palpably present—another series of newspaper photographs in this show depicts Tina Modotti as she is questioned by police just after her lover, a militant organizer, was assassinated. She was with him on the street when he was shot. He died in her arms.
Saturated with the beauty and sorrow of these images, my mood changes again as I descend the stairs. I join a line that is flanked by police who check everyone’s bags. Throughout the summer a number of bombs have exploded in public places in Paris. The randomness of this violence is as much a part of modern life as the lone skyscraper of Montparnasse, which towers over me as I step out onto the street, reminding me once more that this is a different age than the one Modotti recorded.
Outwardly the most obvious change is technological. Like surrounding armies, steel and glass structures can be seen at the edge of this old city of Paris. Efficiency with its faster cars and airplanes, television, computers, e-mail, faxes, defines modern life here. Yet strangely, in this brave new world with its promise of every possible sensation and comfort, one feels diminished. The unapproachable immensity of the skyscraper in front of me, blotting out the immensity of the sky, appears now as an icon of an anonymous power, in whose shadow I feel powerless.
Among those who would seek or want social change, despair is endemic now. A lack of hope that is tied to many kinds of powerlessness. Repeating patterns of suffering. Burgeoning philosophies of fear and hatred. Not to speak of the failure of dreams. Where once there were societies that served as models for a better future, grand plans, utopias, now there is distrust and dissatisfaction with any form of politics, a sense of powerlessness edging into nihilism.
Yet Modotti’s beautiful images still speak in me. The eye of her camera is so fresh. A bunch of roses, encountered, almost as if caressed, come alive as if never before in the frame of her camera. And it’s the same with a typewriter or a crowd standing under umbrellas in the rain, her vision original, allowing one to see the familiar again in a fuller dimension. Even in her photograph of the Mexican Communist Party, one sees a layer of existence beneath theory; a desire for a better life and for justice that is radiantly evident among those she photographed. Perhaps it’s precisely now, as old systems of meaning perish, that new meanings can be revealed.
In these years after the end of the Cold War, a time of the failure of old paradigms and systems of thought, perhaps hope lies less in the direction of grand theories than in the capacity to see, to look past old theories that may obscure understanding and even promise. To assume what the Buddhists call beginner’s mind. And to see what exists freshly and without prejudice clears the path for seeing what might exist in the future, or what is possible.