Biography of Tina Modotti
Tina Modotti was born Assunta Adelaide Luigia Modotti Mondini, and given the nickname Assuntina, a diminutive of her mother's name, later shortened to Tina. She was the third of six children born to Giuseppe Modotti and Assunta Mondini, and the family lived in the Northeastern Italian town of Udine, at the base of the Austrian Alps. Although the historic town of Udine was prosperous and in general politically conservative, the working classes tended toward Socialism and political activism. Modotti's father was among those influenced by such activism; he often attended demonstrations and meetings, including the May Day demonstrations that took place every year. The family moved, and Modotti spent much of her childhood living in Austria, where her father worked as a mason, and her mother stayed home with the children working as a seamstress to generate additional income. In 1905, the family returned to Udine and Modotti left school to work in a textile factory. Although she seems to have had little exposure to art as a child, her uncle Pietro Modotti did run a successful photography studio (and school), where she may have worked as a teenager.
Also in 1905, Modotti's father Giuseppe emigrated to the United States by way of New York. In 1907 he moved to San Francisco, where he opened a photography studio in North Beach, the Italian hub of the city. In June of 1913 Modotti traveled to New York, then on to San Francisco to join her father and sister. After her arrival in San Francisco, Modotti worked odd jobs in the city's garment industry. In the mid-1910s she met Roubaix de l'Abrie Richey (known as Robo to his friends), an American bohemian painter and poet, who had a profound influence on Modotti's early artistic life. Through Richey, Modotti was introduced to the artists, writers, photographers, and other members of the cultural elite, including the prominent photography critic Sadakichi Hartman. By 1917 she was appearing as an actress on the theater stage, perhaps at the encouragement of Richey. Her path to the stage seems to have come by way of her flair for reciting poetry and her ability to captivate audiences. By age 26, Modotti had become a minor celebrity in the Italian community of San Francisco.
Modotti is said to have married Richey in Santa Barbara in 1918, though there is some speculation that the two were never legally married. They moved to Los Angeles later that year. In Los Angeles Modotti worked in theater and film. She also worked as a much sought-after model for artists and photographers, including for the notable Pictorialist photographer, Jane Reece. In 1920 and 1922 she secured several film Hollywood film roles. During their time in Los Angeles Modotti and Richey enjoyed a wide circle of friends that included writers, artists, actors, dancers, and musicians. They hosted frequent parties where the couple probably met photographer Edward Weston, who was running a portrait photography business in Los Angeles. Modotti modeled for Weston for the first time in 1921.
Early Training and Work
Modotti stayed behind in Los Angeles, and Robo Richey left for Mexico in late 1921. With the promise of both a job and a studio, Richey planned to paint and to soak up the highly charged political atmosphere of 1920s Mexico City. His time in Mexico was tragically brief however, as he contracted small pox only a few months later and died in February 1922. In the wake of Robo's death (arriving just two days late to be able to say a personal goodbye), Modotti traveled to Mexico and spent time with his closest acquaintances, including Ricardo Gómez Robelo, who had recently become the Chief of the Education Ministry's Department of Fine Art.
The people that Modotti met while in Mexico during 1922 influenced her decision to move there the following year. Devastated by the loss of Richey, but also by the death of her father, who died just a few months after Richey, she returned to Los Angeles and developed a close personal relationship with the already famous photographer, Edward Weston. Weston, who has since been credited as one of the most influential American photographers of all time, at this moment had an active studio in Los Angeles, and was married with children when he and Modotti became lovers. By the end of 1922, Modotti had decided to leave her acting career behind and to travel with Weston to Mexico to learn photography and make a new life.
When they arrived in Mexico in 1923, Modotti was resolutely committed to becoming a professional photographer. In the 1920s, following a decade of hostilities after the 1910 Revolution, Mexico was experiencing a period of relative calm, increased modernization, and a renewal in the arts that included ambitious new cultural policies combining social and educational initiatives. As a result, Mexico City became a cultural center that lured many artists and intellectuals throughout the 1920s. It was in this optimistic atmosphere that Modotti and Weston opened a photography studio in September of 1923 and planned to run it together.
Modotti began taking photographs around this time, many of which incorporated close-up images of flowers and other still-life compositions. She hoped that learning photography would allow her to become financially independent, and while she initially served as Weston's darkroom assistant, she also participated actively in all other aspects of running the studio. From 1923 to 1930 she was able to support herself as a professional photographer. At this time, Modotti and Weston met and socialized with other artists and revolutionaries, including Dr. Atl (Gerardo Murillo Cornado), Nahui Olín, Diego Rivera and his wife Guadalupe Marín, Ricardo Gómez Robelo, painter Xavier Guerrero, painter Rafael Sala, and French painter Jean Charlot.
After setting up their studio, the photographer couple spent time touring Mexico City and the surrounding area, primarily visiting ruins. In April of 1924 Modotti and Weston, along with a group of friends, spent a week photographing at Tepotzotlán, the ancient Mexican town just north of Mexico City. Early on Modotti worked with a 4 x 5 inch view camera that required a tripod. This machine was well-suited to formal portrait sittings and for documenting murals, which she often did after 1926. A few years later, Modotti purchased a Graflex, a handheld single lens reflex camera that provided her with greater spontaneity and freedom of movement because it did not require a tripod. Like Weston, she subscribed to the importance of composing images in the camera. She often contact-printed her negatives, which meant that the paper was placed directly on the negative and exposed to light. Although many photographers from this period came to Straight Photography through Pictorialism (an emulation of painting using photography), Modotti completely bypassed earlier movement in favor of the "straight" approach.
Whilst Weston left Mexico in 1926 and returned to California, Modotti became increasingly emerged in Mexican life and politics. Initially joining the International Red Aid organization, Modotti had been active in radical politics for two years before she officially joined the Communist Party. Her photography also became more political in subject matter and intent after 1925. Many of Modotti's new friends and fellow artists were involved with the Mexican Communist Party. Important among them was Diego Rivera, for whom she worked as a model in 1926 and later had a brief but intense affair while he was married to Lupe Marín. Modotti appeared in Rivera's 1926 mural The Abundant Earth and two years later in In the Arsenal (1928), which also included Frida Kahlo, with whom Rivera had begun a relationship earlier that year.
Modotti and Kahlo met before Kahlo became involved with Rivera, and the two shared an immediate connection that developed into a close and lasting friendship. Modotti's reputation as a photographer was growing in these years and her relationships with important Mexican artists brought her commissions to photograph the Mexican Muralism movement, including murals by Rivera, José Clemente Orozco, David Alfaro Siqueiros, and Máximo Pacheco. In addition to showing her work in exhibitions in Mexico and the United States, she published her work in various Mexican magazines and newspapers, including Mexican Folkways and the Communist newspaper El Machete; in European left-wing magazines Arbeiter Illustrierte Zeitung and Der Arbeiter-Fotograf, and art and literary magazines Transition and L'Art vivant.
When Modotti officially joined the Communist Party of Mexico in 1927 she began a relationship with Mexican revolutionary Xavier Guerrero, who was called shortly thereafter to Moscow to attend a three- year training course. The following year, she met and fell in love with the exiled Cuban revolutionary, Julio Antonio Mella, a founder of the Cuban Communist Party. Their relationship was short lived, as Mella was shot and killed while walking home with Modotti from the offices of Red Aid (the Communist social service organization) in 1929. In a dramatic turn of events, Modotti was arrested for Mella's murder. She was cleared and released a short time later, but the resulting political intrigue tainted the remainder of her stay in Mexico. With her increased involvement in political work, she devoted less and less time to photography.
Towards the end of 1929, Modotti traveled to southern Mexico to pre-Hispanic Tehuantepec, where she photographed the indigenous women of the city. This was an interest that Modotti shared with Frida Kahlo. Back in Mexico City, assassinations and violent attacks on Communists were increasing; as such the Offices of the Communist Party and El Machete (the official Communist newspaper) were closed as per government instruction in June 1929. By the end of the year, Modotti's house was under constant surveillance. During her final months in Mexico the artist began an exquisite series of photographs of puppets and puppeteers. She had her first one-woman exhibition at Mexico City's National Library in December 1929. At the exhibition's opening, her friend David Alfaro Siquieros delivered a lecture entitled "The First Revolutionary Photographic Exhibit in Mexico," and the talk positioned Modotti's work within a larger history of political art. Despite the show's positive reception, she was arrested, unjustly, two weeks later, along with other enemies of the state, for the attempted murder of the new Mexican president, Pascual Ortiz Rubio. These and other events led to her deportation from Mexico in 1930.
From Mexico, Modotti was put on a ship headed to the Netherlands. When she arrived in Rotterdam two months later, Italian officials were waiting to escort her back to fascist Italy. International Red Aid helped her to obtain a visa for Berlin, where she spent six months before moving on to Moscow to become a party worker. She struggled to assert herself professionally in Berlin, finding a level of photographic sophistication, particularly among the workers, that was largely absent in Mexico. As a result, she doubted her own abilities in a city in the midst of a photographic boom - the famous Film und Foto exhibition was held in Stuttgart in 1929 and featured some of the most innovative and important photographs produced in the interwar period. More accustomed to working with a bulky Graflex camera (held at waist height to allow the photographer to carefully compose an image), than the more up-to-date handheld cameras, like the recently introduced Leica, Modotti was out of her element in the photography center that was interwar Berlin. Although she made a small number of photographs at this time, they were somewhat unremarkable when compared with her earlier Mexican work. Determined to make herself useful to the Communist movement, Modotti decided to leave Germany for Moscow. Before she left she held a small exhibition in the studio of German photographer Lotte Jacobi.
Modotti arrived in Moscow in October of 1930. In this new, highly politicized environment, she largely abandoned her photographic work in favor of her political work for Red Aid. This was due in part to increased restrictions placed on artists by the government. Artists were given little in the way of artistic freedom; instead they were forced to produce propaganda that served the Soviet state. These conditions led her to set her creative work aside.
While working in Moscow, she met and started a relationship with fellow Italian revolutionary, Vittorio Vivaldi. The pair engaged in various missions together, possibly as Soviet agents. With the outbreak of the Spanish civil war, Modotti traveled to Spain in 1934, where she continued her humanitarian work for Red Aid. After the Fascist victory in 1939, she fled Spain for France and obtained passage to sail to New York. On arrival, she was detained and refused entry to the United States due to inconsistencies in her (false) documents. She, and others fleeing the Spanish Civil War, made their way by ship to Mexico. During her last few years in Mexico, she lived under an assumed name, associating with other refugees, rather than the friends she had left in Mexico years earlier. She applied for political asylum in 1941 and regained the right to use her own name - Tina Modotti. A year later, in 1942, she died suddenly and rather mysteriously in a Mexico City taxi cab (on her way home from poet Pablo Neruda's house) at just forty-five years old. Although her cause of death was listed as heart disease, there is speculation that she was murdered by her former lover Vidali and the Communists.
The Legacy of Tina Modotti
Her work was largely unknown until the 1990s, when a cache of her remarkable photographs was discovered in an Oregon farmhouse. Long overshadowed by her extraordinary life and her relationship with Edward Weston, she was viewed as his muse, rather than as a gifted photographer in her right. Despite a remarkably short career in photography - just seven years - she created a body of iconic images that confirmed her place in history. By fusing rigorous formalism with a desire to effect social change, she reconceived revolutionary photography through the language of modernism. Her work is now a touchstone in the history of photography, reflecting equally the tenets of modernist photography and the experience of post-revolutionary Mexico. Modotti's photographs continue to inspire many, including many women and activists interested in making a socially and politically relevant art.
In the realms of Straight Photography, Modotti's work is interesting to consider in comparison to that of Dorothea Lange and Imogen Cunningham, three women known to have had a dialogue in 1925 when Modotti returned to San Francisco for a short while. Like Cunningham and Lange, Modotti excelled in formal technique and as such influenced the next generation of highly skilled photographers. In subject matter and energy however, there is also a strong Surrealist and feminist edge to the work of Modotti extending her field of influence even wider. She is one of many European artists, including Leonora Carrington and Leonor Fini, who found freedom of expression in Mexico City; in this respect Modotti's oeuvre adds to the history of a place as cultural and artistic capital for a time.
Content compiled and written by Karen Barber
Edited and revised, with Synopsis and Key Ideas added by Rebecca Baillie
Content compiled and written by Karen Barber
Edited and revised, with Synopsis and Key Ideas added by Rebecca Baillie
First published on 12 Nov 2018. Updated and modified regularly