By Carolina Arévalo

Frida Kahlo was one of the most photographed women of her time, and photography was an important feature in forming the myth surrounding her. She had a close connection with photography since childhood and made of her photographs a record of her life and a statement to her existence. Her appearance in photographs was encouraged by her mysterious-beautiful face, exotic clothing, celebrity status as Rivera´s wife, and the fascinating nature of the art she produced.[1] Through the visual analysis of portraits by Nickolas Murray, Lucienne Bloch, Carl Van Vechten, and Toni Frissell, and their relation to other photographs, this paper aims to demostrate that these images were the result of a collaboration in between the photographer and the model–Frida– becomingco-author of her own image, addressing concerns about gender roles, politics, ethnicity and making her whole life a work of art.

Frida Kahlo has enshrined in the popular imagination as a multifaceted artist, proto-feminist, sexual adventurer who challenged gender boundaries, and with her mixed-race parentage, an embodiment of a hybrid, postcolonial world. Beyond the naivety of her gesture, “her works frequently reveal an incendiary subtext, whether they are questioning power relationships between developed and developing nations, testing the role of women within a patriarchal society.”[2]

Frida is also credited of having displayed in art for the first time the interior reality of a woman’s life and all kinds of female experience: disablement, rejection, miscarriage, suffering, Mexican-ness, Jewish-ness, homosexuality, revolution, subversion and devotion.

In conjunction with her paintings, Frida used her exotic beauty and otherworldly style to create her own person: “Both Kahlo’s art and her public “self-staging” were spiced with a heavy dose of Mexicanidad, that drive towards collective recollection of the nation’s indigenous origins and its own national culture that emerged in the course of the Mexican Revolution.”[3]

The proliferation of her image–both reproductions of her self-portraits or photographs of the artist– in the popular media raised her reputation. During her first trip to the United States, she was photographed by Lucienne Bloch, Imogene Cunningham, Peter Juley, Martin Munkacsi, Nickolas Muray, Carl van Vechten, and Edward Weston. In Mexico, she posed for Lola Alvarez Bravo, Miguel Alvarez Bravo, Miguel Covarrubias, Gisele Freund, Hector Garcia, Antonio Kahlo, and Berenice Kolko, Andre Breton and Dora Maar.[4]

Kahlo family portrait. Guillermo Kahlo.
Coyoacan, Mexico City, c.1926.

Since her childhood, Frida was related with photography and posed for her father, Guillermo Kahlo. He was an urban German photographer that received commissions from the government to portrait the Mexico of the early twentieth century. Frida and her father shared many personal affinities and as might be expected it was from him that she learned the value of this medium. Almost as a ritual, he made lots of family portraits were Frida represents different characters. Since that time, Frida posed in front of the camera with naturalness that was captivating. But the traumatic bus accident that Frida suffers, also changed her photographic discourse:

Frida at four stages of her life (one image from a quadriptych).
Guillermo Kahlo, c. 1932. Photo: Courtesty of Artisphere, Arlington, VA.

“When my father took my picture in 1932 after the accident, I knew that a battlefield of suffering was in my eyes. From then on, I started looking straight at the lens, unflinching, unsmiling, and determined to show that I was a good fighter to the end.”[5]

Bertram and Ella Wolfe became friends and confidants of Frida in San Francisco. Bertram said “her appeareance would have been shrill, if it were not for the aesthetic sense she projected,” and suggest that this aesthetic sense was captured by Nickolas Murray. [6]

Nickolas Murray was an acclaimed fashion and portrait Hungarian-American photographer of Vanity Fair, pioneer of color photography. He was introduced to Frida Kahlo in Mexico City in May 1931 by Miguel Covarrubias, who contributed as caricaturist and illustrator to the magazine. In the fall of 1938, she traveled to New York to prepare her first solo exhibition at the Julien Levy Gallery, and during this time they fell deeply in love and maintained a complicated love affair for over ten years.[7]

The Magenta Rebozo. Nickolas Muray, 1939
Carbro print. 42.7 x 32.2 cm. (16 13/16 x 12 11/16 in.)
© Nickolas Muray Photo Archives

Nickolas Murray: 
Frida Kahlo in Magenta Rebozo.

The Magenta Rebozo is the photograph that has been reproduced more than any of her portraits, and has been cited in fine art, folk art and popular culture.

Murray made this color photographs of Kahlo when she was thirty-one, in the winter of 1938-1939, before she left to Paris for the Mexicanique Exhibition.

She is standing in front of the camera with her arms smoothly folded at her waist.

“Her head is tilted at a slight angle and she gazes directly at the viewer and seem to radiate a peaceful, contented confidence. Her hair braided with a thick skein of purple yarn and arranged above her head in an indigenous hairstyle from Oaxaca, held in place with two black combs.”[8]

Frida´s black thick braids over her head teamed it with flowers became a strong component of her visual identity.

In an eclectic but soft harmony, the silver earings matched with the pre-Columbian shell necklace, quite covered by the Magenta Rebozo or shawl that is draped over her shoulders. The loose white blouse and the gray-violet skirt create another lightly and warm layer, which Kurt Heinzelman describes:

“The studio lighting draws attention to her face and her neck which are subtly molded , but casts a sharp shadow on the wall to the right and creates more diffused dark shadows below her arms and behind her. The chiaroscuro lighting that falls on the rebozo emphasizes the undulating folds of the fabric.” [9]

After Frida received this photograph–which Murray sent as a present to her– she wrote him a letter saying how beautiful she thought it is and how grateful she was, but also noted Rivera´s impression, describing its similarity with Piero Della Francesca paintings.[10] This comparison is significant in a phase when photography´s status as fine art was not broadly accepted. In this sense, The Magenta Rebozo is clearly coupled with the Mexican Renaissance.

However, The Magenta Rebozo found a strong resonance in a portrait made by Imogen Cunningham seven years before in San Francisco.

Frida Kahlo, Painter and Wife of Diego Rivera. Imogen Cunningham.
c.1930, San Francisco. The Imogen Cunningham Trust, Berkeley, California.

Imogen Cunningham: Frida Kahlo, Painter and Wife of Diego Rivera.

At the end of the 1930s, Frida first traveled to the United States accompanying Diego, who was painting the murals at the San Francisco Stock Exchange. Little known at that time as a painter, Frida accompanied him as his beautiful and extravagant wife. And that is how she came to pose for the photographer Imogen Cunningham, confirming the appeal of her personality.[11]

As a visual artist and as a public person she constructed a physical image to project to the world. She was aware of its importance and the positive effects that the Mexican dress–and particularly the Tehuana–had over her disability and over her overall visual image.

Behind her small patterned geometric rebozo, she is holding her hands.

Another element that was used in this image as a precedent in her whole work of art, is her eyebrow. Frida immortalized the black strong unibrow expressing her refusal of conforms to the conventional norms of Western beauty. She embraced this symbol in different ways along her work, from the wing of a humming bird to thick and exaggerated brush strokes.

The austerity and purity of planes in the background, probably works as a reminder of the modernist context.

Edward Weston. c. 1930, San Francisco.
Center for Creative Photography, Arizona Board of Regents.

In those years, beyond they became very close friends, Cunningham was a fashionable portrait photographer and part of the f/64 Group, as Edward Weston. The same year also in San Francisco, Weston meet Frida, photographed her and wrote in his diary:

“I photographed Diego again, his new wife –Frieda– too: she is sharp in contrast to Lupe [Diego’s ex-wife], petite–a little doll alongside Diego, but a doll in size only, for she is strong and quite beautiful, shows very little of her father’s German blood. Dressed in native costume even to huaraches, she causes much excitement on the streets of San Francisco. People stop in their tracks to look in wonder.”[12]

Frida must have been curious to know Weston, for Tina Modotti surely would have spoken to her about him, and Rivera had great admiration for his photographs.[13] However, Frida Kahlo wearing traditional Mexican dress at a time when it wasn’t fashionable, combined with elaborate and large floral headdresses and Tehuana ribbons in her hair, become a distinctive accent of her presence.

Lucienne Bloch. c.1933, New York City.

Lucienne Bloch, 1933, New York City

After the destruction of Diego Rivera´s mural at the Rockefeller Center, he painted a series of murals without a fee. Lucienne Block photographed Frida posing with one of the Rivera’s murals at the New Workers School (actually The News School at Eugene Lang College of Liberal Arts, NY).[14]

In this mural, Frida stands paused in front of political and ideologic characters –as Lenin and Trostksy–painted in the mural, where she was portrayed as the wife of the revolutionary painter. In a reflexive posture, she inclines her head in her hand creating a diagonal line with the elbow. During those first years in the United States, Frida did not participate to any significant degree in the international art scene and was positioned as the wife of Diego Rivera, the artist and leading figure of the left-leaning avant garde, who enjoyed international attention. “It was in the context of Mexico’s revolutionary culture that Frida emerged as a painter, developing her small-scale, intimate self-portraits alongside the aggressively masculine and politically dominating Mexican muralists, including Jose Clemente Orozco, David Alfaro Siqueiros, and the man she married twice, Diego Rivera.”[15]

During those days, Bloch took another photograph of Frida where she also reclined her head exactly in the opposite direction. Winking an eye her gesture is coquette and Bloch´s framing is more private, remarking the diagonal with a diffuse stick dividing the plane. As in almost all of her portraits, Frida gives a mysterious, sensuous semi-smile; “one wonders why we never see the fun-loving, raucous Kahlo laughing with abandon that her friends described.”[16]

Lucienne Bloch. c.1933, New York City.

However, this image express a seductive relation just between the camera and Frida, and has nothing to do with Diego or the political circumstances of the time.

In the juxtaposition of these two photographs, Frida played with gender roles and opposing female identities. The expression of two identities in the same woman is reinforced using exactly the same dress, rebozo, necklace, earrings and hairdress.

Juan Guzman. Frida Kahlo posing in a wheelchair for the painting Nightmare of War, Dream of Peace, 1952. Cenidiap Archive Collection, Mexico.

Almost 20 years after this series, Juan Guzmán portrayed Frida again in front of a Rivera´s mural. This time she is with Diego, the husband and artist that at the same time is painting his wife and artist among the Mexican people. “Overcoming handicaps was an aspect of Kahlo’s capacity to sublimate pain–to turn weakness into strength–and to become an active participant in the cultural, historical, and political events of her time.”[17]

The Woman from Tehuantepec

Frida Kahlo and Tina Modotti met in Mexico City in 1922, when Mexico was just emerging from the state of shock caused by the revolution. As the country set about modernizing its structures, the arts took on a new political importance. Mexico City quickly established itself as the center of cultural renewal. It must have been Mexico’s political and cultural resurgence that fascinated and attracted Modotti to joined Edward Weston to Mexico.

These two women artists also were militants of the Socialist Political Party. As might be expected, radical tendencies of contemporary Mexican politics and culture influenced both works, each one remarked by its own aesthetic.[18]

Both artists addressed in their work their concern about women´s body and its place in representation, establishing particular questions about art and –[proto] feminist–politics. Consequently, these questions merge with marginality–the status, in terms of mainstream art history.[19]

As is possible to see in Modotti’s Woman fro Tehuantepec and in Carl Van Vechten Frida de Rivera as in many other photographs, both Kahlo and Modotti worked in dialects rather than language of high art. One of the most powerlful symbols in both images is the tehuana dress.

Frida Kahlo De Rivera. Carl Van Vechten. c. 1932, New York (22 x 14.6 cm.) Carl Van Vechten Papers, Yale Collection of American Literature, Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Yale University.

Carl Van Vecheten took this photograph in March 19th,1932, in the studio-apartment in New York City. He photographed many of the most famous and influential figures of his day as well as up-and-comers and artistic outliers. He was interested in the cultural margin and his subjects gave a sense of his considerable role in defining the cultural landscape of the twentieth century. He was mostly know by his leading lights of the Harlem Renaissance.[20]

Along her life and work of art, Kahlo consciously uses the traditional Tehuana dress to stylized her figure and construct her identity from her disabillity, tradition, and the dress, transforming it in an ideological and cultural statement. The Tehuana dress comes from the Tehuantepec Isthmus located in the south eastern part of Mexico in the region of Oaxaca.

“This matriarchal society is administrated and dominated by women and, as such, their traditional attire is a strong symbol of female power and independence.”[21]

Frida Kahlo was able to perceive the semiotic quality of the clothing, which lies within its role as a metaphorical vehicle, and is also easily understood by the eye of the onlooker. Frida’s use of this traditional dress to strengthen her identity, reafirming her political beliefs, and concealing her imperfections, also built on her own sense of heritage and personal history.

In the same way, Modotti shot Woman of Tehuantepec. This photograph shows a Tehuantepec woman balancing a large painted gourd on her head. Rebecca Mitchell, Curator of The Kathleen C. Sherrerd, Philadelphia Museum of Art notes on Modotti´s photograph:

Woman of Tehuantepec. Tina Modotti. c. 1929, Tehuantepec, Oaxaca, Mexico. Gelatin silver print. 8 3/8 x 7 3/8 inches (21.3 x 18.7 cm) Philadelphia Museum of Art

“Modotti carefully composed this picture to draw attention to the woman’s strength and beauty. Her stable posture, powerful gesture, and calm facial expression show her self-confidence. Modotti cropped the photograph so that the woman dominates the composition. She also took the picture from a low vantage point so that we look up at the woman, emphasizing her importance. Striking shapes and patterns frame her face—from the repeating triangles, squares, and diamonds in her dress, to her shiny circular pendant and earring, and the delicate flowers, fruits, and leaves painted on the gourd she carries.”[22]

According to Panofsky understands of semiotics, the primary subject matter is the mexicanness which constitute the world of artist motifs, reinforced with pre-Columbian jewelry, embroideries, and multiple kind of objects, and this familiarity with the composition with certain expressional connotations, gaze the viewer to based his interpretation under conditions and its wider social meaning.[23] The whole allegory of the indigenous woman is related to the world of customs and cultural traditions particular to Oaxaca. Their relationship to the Mexican cultural background immediate relevance and was necessary rather than different:

“The personal is political. This phrase rejects the traditional exclusion and repression of the personal in male dominant politics (…) in this sense the domestic and the private lines it generates, are like an uncolonized territory.”[24]

It is important to note that Modotti was an artist, but was also equally, if not more, a political activist and because of this, it is her photos that clearly serve as an illustrative narrative of the Mexican Renaissance. Modotti’s aesthetic statement was notable in her use of metaphor and iconography. Also, as a powerful brush stroke in a canvas, she struck directly into the camera and out of the point.[25]

“All images are polysemous posing a question that always comes through as a dysfunction; imply, underlying their signifiers, a ‘floating chain “of meanings.”[26] Tina’s system takes over the signs of another system, that was constructed by Mexican idiosincracity, but at the same time by other contemporary artists depicting Mexico, and also by international politic discourses, and all of their signifiers projected a system of connotation.

Vogue: Toni Frissel and Frida Kahlo

Vogue Magazine. Toni Frissel, c. 1977, Mexico. © The Frissell Collection, Library of Congress. Gelatin silver print, 8 3/8 x 7 3/8 inches (21.3 x 18.7 cm). Philadelphia Museum of Art


In October 1937, the visionary director of Vogue Magazine, Edna Woolman commissioned Toni Frissel to portrait Frida. Through her lens, Frissel immortalized the image of Frida that is going also influence fashion.

Frissell and Kahlo decide to challenged the lighting and went out of the studio. Frida posed in front of a big manguey, a plant very common and revered in Mexico, from where are extracted licquors such as tequila, mezcal and pulque, the latter related to coyote and native rituals.

Frida wears her characteristic rebozo, her braids and a long skirt that cover her legs. Despite she was part of the Mexican elite, she is representing a manguey’s worker.

Frissell’s geniality created a fresh and light composition, portraiting Frida as a mythological fashion guide, in a publication that was distributed broadly and successfully in the United States. The mystic nature of Mexico and the mysterious Frida was beautifully capture in the photograph that was most distributed at her time.


“[After the Mexican Revolution] photography in Mexico gained recognition as an artistic form of expression. This took place within the framework of a reinvigorated cultural life, motivated principally by the nationalist passion aroused during the post-revolutionary period, and linked to the need to create new ideological structures.”[27]

To conlude, Frida Kahlo invented and recreated herself through photography along her entire life with intelligence and energy. Many photographers, fascinated with her allure, portrayed her in what inevitably became a co-creation with Frida, which approaches to her ambiguity, her passion, her charm, and her seductive style:

“Some were friends and lovers; other were acquaintances or professional photographers assigned to photograph her for magazines and newspapers. For all of them, Frida, with an innate sense of what she want to look like, molded her expression and positioned her body, angling her head and using her eyes to conjure a presence that left no one untouched. Embracing her natural mestizo beauty, the photographs highlight her high cheekbones, pronounced jawline, and intense dark eyes framed by thick, curved, eyebrows.” [28]

In different embodiments –as an artist, as woman, as a tehuana, as a wife, among many others– different photographers depicted an identity that she has made of herself.

Posthumously she has been turned into a stereotype of Latin American art. As her work, her image challenged notions of gender, sexuality, social class, and ethnicity, it has been almost prophetic in predicting broader cultural concerns—postcolonialism, feminism, and multiculturalism—that reached an increase in the 1960s until today.[29]

Phoptography was another medium that spread her exotic singularity; one of the privilege instruments to confirm the magic of her presence.The photograph functioned as an essential in the construction of the myth of the artist.[30]

The merit of Frida resides in her acceptance of photography’s objectification and used it for the control of her own image. Then, photography as a masculine artifact that captures reality is inverted; the control from the lens to the subjectified body shift from the image to the photograph.


[1] Prignitz-Poda, Helga and Peter von Becker. Frida Kahlo: Retrospective, (Munich: Prestel, 2010), 210.

[2] Tate Modern, “Frida Kahlo” Exhibition, 2005.

[3] Prignitz-Poda, 210.

[4] Heinzelman, Kurt, and Peter Mears.The Covarrubias Circle: Nickolas Muray’s Collection of Twentieth-Century Mexican Art, (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2004) 47.

[5] Poniatowska, Elena. Frida Kahlo: The Camera Seduced, (San Francisco: Chronicle Books, 1992), 21.

[6] Prignitz-Poda, 211.

[7] Heinzelman, 48.

[8] Graham, Mhairi. The fashion codes of Frida Kahlo. © 2009 – 2015 AnOther Publishing Ltd.

[9] Heinzelman, 50.

[10] “I find it even more beautiful than in New York. Diego says that it is as marvelous as Piero de la Francesca. To me is more than that, it is a treasure (…)” Kahlo, Escrituras, 181-183.

[11] Prignitz-Poda, 212

[12] Herrera, Hayden. Frida, a Biography of Frida Kahlo (New York: Harper & Row, 1983),120.

[13] Ibid, 119.

[14] Poniatowska, 120.

[15] Ibid,105.

[16] Ibid,106.

[17] Ibid.

[18] Whitechapel Art Gallery.Frida Kahlo and Tina Modotti, (London: Whitechapel Art Gallery, 1982), 9.

[19] Ibid, 8.

[20] Carl Van Vechten Papers, Yale Collection of American Literature, Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Yale University.

[21] Hinostrosa, Circe, and Museo Frida Kahlo (La Casa Azul). “Las Apariencias Engañan”Exhibition.

[22] © 2015 Philadelphia Museum of Art. All rights reserved.

[23] Panofsky, Erwin. Studies in Iconology: Humanistic Themes in the Art of the Renaissance, (New York: Harper & Row, 1962).

[24] Whitechapel Art Gallery,15.

[25] Whitechapel Art Gallery,16.

[26] Barthes, Roland, and Annette Lavers. Mythologies, (New York: Hill and Wang, 1972).

[27] Prignitz-Poda, 210

[28] Poniatowska, 105

[29] Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago,”Unbound: Contemporary Art After Frida Kahlo”Exhibition, 2014.

[30] Mayayo, Patricia. Frida Kahlo: contra el mito, (Madrid: Catedra, 2008), 27. [My translation]

Julio 2, 2015

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