Among the collection of Frida Kahlo's personal belongings, discovered in 2004 at her Mexico City home, the Casa Azul, were some 6,000 photographs, some never seen before. At the time, Kahlo was well-known as the preferred sitter of world-famous photographers, but little else was known of her personal interest in photography. The existence of this personal photographic archive revealed Kahlo as a zealous collector, who carefully exchanged, stored and personally inscribed anything from family portraits and snapshots of friends, to images of leading personalities of her day. Even more striking was the revelation, thanks to a handful of images attributed to her, that Kahlo was herself a photographer.
Two other newly discovered photographs, found among the Royal Photographic Society collection, recently acquired by the V&A, provide further evidence of Kahlo's lifelong relationship with photography. Taken in 1945, they document Kahlo's attendance at a seminar led by US-based photographer and teacher Nicholas Haz. Haz lectured frequently on photographic composition, and particularly, pictorialism – a stylistic movement popular in the early 20th century. Kahlo's deep understanding of photographic process, technique and aesthetics would inform both her own self-portraits, and the image she projected to the world through the lens of other photographers.
I have my father's eyes and my mother's body
Kahlo was introduced to photography as a very young child, through the lens of her father's camera. Guillermo Kahlo was a German émigré who settled in Mexico in the late 19th century and established his own photographic studio in Mexico City in 1901, specialising in "buildings, room interiors, factories, machinery". Following some commercial success, he was commissioned under the regime of Porfirio Díaz, President of Mexico in the early 1900s, to document the country's colonial architecture – government buildings, infrastructure and churches. Many of these images were published in large-format volumes that celebrated Mexcio's architectural heritage and drive for modernity.
Photography played a vital role in documenting and communicating political events during the Mexican Revolution (1910 – 20). In the 1920s Guillermo's church photographs were reappraised by the Mexican painter and writer Dr Atl, and were republished in six volumes titled Iglesias de Mexico – copies of which are now held at the V&A's National Art Library. In the context of post-revolutionary Mexico, the value of Guillermo's photographs completely changed. No longer seen merely as monuments to European religious tradition, the churches he captured were reinterpreted for their vernacular qualities and the role of the indigenous workers who built them.
Guillermo became known for his rigorous and analytical vision, carrying with him a heavy camera as he travelled far and wide recording the country's landmarks. He applied the same photographic precision to his own self-portraits and family photographs. The young Frida Kahlo learnt to retouch his glass plates, sometimes assisting him in his dark room and accompanying him in his photographic assignments. She became one of his favourite photographic subjects.
Photography and self-portraiture
I knew that the battlefield of suffering was reflected in my eyes. Ever since then, I started looking straight into the lens, without winking, without smiling, determined to prove I would be a good warrior until the end.
As she grew older, Frida would experiment with her self-image, adopting different guises in front of the camera. She must have been aware of the numerous self-portraits her father took, and perhaps inherited his fascination with the self. Photography, not painting, was Frida's first medium of self-expression: in one photograph she wears a three-piece man's suit and holds a cane, in a dandyish pose. Exhibiting gender ambiguity was unusual at the time. In other photographs and in her early paintings, Frida adopted very feminine attire. Costume, and its representation through photography, became vital in the construction of Kahlo's identity, and her assertion of difference.
She later used these photographs as source material for her own self-portraits, emulating their stillness and directness of gaze. In a photograph taken in 1926, Frida wears a plain polka dot shirt and simple parted hair. She recreated this three-quarter pose in numerous later self-portraits, such as Self-Portrait MCMXLI (1941). In the painting, her stoic features mask her emotions, but the subtle tension around her mouth express subdued grief following her father's death earlier that year.
Frida Kahlo in the USA
Frida Kahlo married the muralist painter Diego Rivera in 1929, and one year later, they left Mexico for San Francisco, where he had been commissioned to paint murals. The couple were invited to many parties, where Frida's traditional Mexican clothing soon aroused interest, though her paintings were not treated with equal respect. In one article of 1931 in the San Francisco News, 'Mrs Diego Rivera' was lauded as the 'little dark eyed, black haired woman' who painted 'in her own way'.
Adorned with pre-Columbian jewellery, simple parted hair, and often wearing a rebozo (handwoven shawl), Kahlo seemed to Americans an authentic Mexican subject. Photographers like Imogen Cunningham and Edward Weston were keen to represent her as such. Weston once said of her:
…dressed in native costume even to huaraches (sandals), she causes much excitement on the streets of San Francisco. People stop in their tracks to look in wonder.
A photograph taken by her father on her return to Mexico presents a different picture. Taken just after her mother's death, it is a portrait of grief and mouring.
I got my wonderful picture you sent to me, I find it even more beautiful than in New York. [...] You will always be inside the magenta rebozo.
In 1931, Frida Kahlo met the Hungarian-born US photographer Nickolas Muray in Mexico. Muray pioneered colour photography in the US during the 1930s, having travelled across Europe learning about colour processes and print techniques. Over the course of a decade, Muray and Kahlo collaborated to make wonderfully vivid images, with sitter and photographer equally active in their composition and framing.
The resulting portraits of Kahlo are some of the most dramatic and memorable ever made. In many, she wears her favourite – and flattering – magenta rebozo, mentioned in her letter to Muray of 13 June, 1939. These images reveal the way Frida composed her outfits and the care she took with her personal colour palette, matching her rebozo to the flowers in her hair, and coordinating her use of lipstick and nail varnish. Muray, meanwhile, was able to draw on his experience as a fashion photographer for magazines such as Harper's Bazaar, Vogue, TIME, and Vanity Fair. He said, "colour calls for a new way of looking at people, at things".
Later in life, Kahlo was photographed at her home, the Casa Azul, where she spent increasingly more time, due to her deteriorating health – the result of a serious accident in her youth, which caused her lifelong complications. The Casa Azul was, neverthless a lively space, filled with an entourage of visiting artists, writers, architects, political personalities, like Leon Trotsky and Miguel Covarrubias, and photographers such as Lola Álvarez Bravo and Gisèle Freund. Freund was a founding member of the agency Magnum Photos. In 1947 she was entrusted to cover South America, and later travelled to Mexico, where she stayed until 1952. Alongside her photojournalism, she became known for her intimate portraits of writers and artists, including those she made of Frida Kahlo.
Freund took many studies of the interior of Kahlo's house, including her desk, the ephemera in her studio, her paintbox and the collection of pre-Columbian artefacts that Kahlo and Rivera amassed over the years, bearing witness to the Casa Azul as a microcosm of Mexico's history. The V&A's collection includes two of Freund's most poignant photographs. They show Frida in her beloved garden, a sanctuary where she grew roses and violets, and lying in her four-poster bed with its inset mirror, which she used to paint herself during periods of rest and recovery.
Frida Kahlo played with the boundaries of the public and private self – while many of her paintings deliberately expose the intimacy of her experience and her pain, her photographic portraits seem to construct alternative 'selves': at times stoic and mourning, at others joyful and provocative, and often subversive. Bending social norms and giving expression to her fluid and ambiguous sense of self, photography, as well as painting, allowed Frida to be multiple. That multiplicity persists, through the popularisation of her image, frequently appropriated and often commodified. Still, the ubiquity of Frida Kahlo's image makes it difficult to pin her down: Kahlo, and the 'Frida' she constructed, remain elusive and fascinating.