Mexican artist Frida Kahlo was photographed time and time again throughout her life. Her image was captured by press photographers and paparazzi as she traveled in the United States with her husband, muralist Diego Rivera. She posed for portraits by some of the most famous photographers of the 20th century – names like Edward Weston, Nickolas Muray and Fritz Henle. In 1937, she appeared in Vogue – in a spread titled Señoras of Mexico.
More than 60 photographs of Kahlo are currently on view in Photographing Frida: Portraits of Frida Kahlo/Fotografiando Frida: Retratos de Frida Kahlo at the Arkansas Arts Center. Throughout these photographs – from candid snapshots to carefully posed studio portraits – Kahlo appears as influential artist, fashion icon, and master of her own image.
While each photograph in the exhibition presents a captivating look at the influential artist, some of the most fascinating portraits of Kahlo in the exhibition were made by women photographers. Every March, in honor of Women’s History Month, the National Museum of Women in the Arts in Washington, D.C. challenges us to highlight (at least) five women artists – as women artists have been historically underrepresented in museums, galleries and auction houses. This Women’s History Month, we’re taking the opportunity to explore the life and work of some of the women behind the striking images featured in Photographing Frida/Fotografiando Frida – on view at the Arkansas Arts Center through April 14.
Imogen Cunningham (1883 – 1976)
American photographer Imogen Cunningham is best known for her striking black and white portraits and abstracted images of organic forms. She was a member of a group of West Coast photographers, known as f/64, that championed sharp focus, high-contrast images in the mid-20th century. The group also included photographers like Ansel Adams and Edward Weston (Weston’s work is also included in Photographing Frida). Kahlo met Cunningham in San Francisco in the early 1930s, where Kahlo and Rivera were living while Rivera worked on local mural commissions.
In Frida (Standing by Basket), Cunningham’s quiet 1931 portrait of Kahlo, is featured in Photographing Frida, the young artist gazes – unsmiling – at the camera with her signature brand of defiant confidence. She’s wearing a rebozo, a traditional Mexican shawl, beaded earrings, and leaning on a woven basket – all elements that Kahlo often used to associate herself with pre-Hispanic Mexico, and particularly the matriarchal Tehuana culture.
Lola Álvarez Bravo (1903 – 1993)
One of the first female photographers in Mexico, Lola Álvarez Bravo was a thoroughly influential figure in 20th century photography. Although her career was often overshadowed by her ex-husband’s, she was both a fine art photographer and a photojournalist – documenting life, art and culture in post-revolution Mexico. Kahlo and Álvarez Bravo worked in the same artistic circles in Mexico and became good friends. Álvarez Bravo also hosted Kahlo’s only solo exhibition in Mexico during Kahlo’s lifetime at Álvarez Bravo’s Mexico City gallery (Kahlo, quite famously, was very ill at the time, and showed up for the opening in her four-poster bed).
Álvarez Bravo’s photos of Kahlo at La Casa Azul – Kahlo and Rivera’s home in Coyoacán, near Mexico City – are deeply personal. In one image, Kahlo peers at her reflection in an arched mirror built into a wall in the courtyard. An eerie photograph from 1954 shows two of Kahlo’s beloved Xolotl dogs guarding her bedroom door after her death.
Emmy Lou Packard (1914 – 1998)
American artist Emmy Lou Packard was a painter and printmaker in addition to being a photographer. Originally from California, she moved to Mexico City in the last 1930s and worked as a studio assistant to Kahlo and Rivera for several years. While living with them at La Casa Azul, she photographed the couple regularly, in many casual and private moments.
In Packard’s photos that appear in Photographing Frida, Kahlo is shown lounging around La Casa Azul. In one, Kahlo appears deep in thought as she sits outside her dining room door. Another shows Kahlo’s elaborately decorated dressing table – with Packard herself framed in the mirror. A photo by Rivera shows Packard with her arms around Kahlo as they smile at the camera (Packard set up the shot, and Rivera snapped the shutter while she posed).
Florence Arquin (1900 – 1974)
Florence Arquin was a Renaissance woman. She was a photographer, painter, writer and scholar of Latin American studies. She met Kahlo and Rivera in Mexico City while studying at the National University of Mexico, eventually writing a book on Rivera’s career, Diego Rivera: The Shaping of an Artist, 1889–1921. While there, she photographed Kahlo and Rivera at La Casa Azul.
The photographs by Arquin featured in the exhibition mostly date from the late 1940s and early 1950s – near the end of Kahlo’s life. One of the few color photographs in the exhibition is by Arquin, showing Kahlo posing in her garden with her arms resting on the back of a chair, sunshine illuminating her face. In another of Arquin’s photographs, Kahlo shows off the plaster corset she wore later in her life (a result of debilitating illnesses and injuries from her youth), on which she had painted symbols of the Communist Party.
Lucienne Bloch (1909 – 1999)
The first words Kahlo said to Swedish-born American photographer Lucienne Bloch when they met were “I hate you.” Rivera and Bloch had been talking all evening, as Kahlo watched from across the room. First meeting notwithstanding, Kahlo and Bloch eventually became close friends, and Bloch photographed Kahlo and Rivera in their travels in the United States.
Bloch’s sparse images of Kahlo show her at home and abroad – at the U.S.-Mexico border in Laredo, Texas, eating an ice cream on Long Island while Rivera smokes a cigar, in front of Rivera’s Communist Unity Panel at the New York Workers School. In one of the silliest images in the exhibition, Bloch captures Kahlo while she dances around the room wearing a photo lamp as a hat.
Graciela Iturbide (1942– )
Graciela Iturbide is a photographer of modern Mexican life. She was born in 1942 – so she wasn’t truly a contemporary of Kahlo, who died in 1954 at the age of 47. But in 2005, when Frida’s private bedroom at La Casa Azul was opened for the first time since her death, it was Iturbide who photographed the personal items left behind. The bedroom and bathroom had been locked and left almost untouched by Rivera after Kahlo’s death and was filled with clothes and personal effects.
Próstesis Frida Kahlo, Mexico, D.F., Iturbide’s haunting portrait of Kahlo’s prosthetic leg is on view in Photographing Frida. Kahlo was born with spina bifida, contracted polio as a child, and was in a near-fatal trolley accident as a young adult. These physical ailments are a main theme of Kahlo’s work – and the photographs in the Arts Center’s exhibition. Kahlo’s prosthetic leg – which she used after her right leg was amputated in 1953 – is the subject of Iturbide’s 2005 photo. In the image, light spills through the leaves of a tree, giving the illusion of a ghost in floating in the photo. As Frida famously wrote in her diary, “Feet, what do I need them for if I have wings to fly?”
See these works – and many more – in Photographing Frida: Portraits of Frida Kahlo/Fotografiando Frida: Retratos de Frida Kahlo, on view at the Arkansas Arts Center through April 14, 2019.