Tina Modotti (1896 – 1942) was an important figure in the field of photography during the 1920s and 1930s. Her work uniquely blends art with activism, as she played an active role in the political events of that time. Through her portraits of iconic figures like Diego Riviera and her documentation of the sights and people of Mexico, focusing on women, folklore and religious art, Modotti established herself as a central figure in the world of Modernist photography.
Born in Udine, Italy, in 1896, Modotti migrated to the United States in 1913. There, she soon found herself in the cultural circles of Hollywood, where she met photographer Edward Weston. Working closely together, Modotti has often been labeled as 'merely' his muse. Rather, though Modotti was undeniably inspired by Weston's style of photography, the influence was mutual. A striking difference in their style is Modotti's fascination and inclusion of people, whereas Weston developed a more abstract style.
In 1923, they moved to Mexico City where Modotti became affiliated with the Muralist movement, documenting the mural artworks by famous artists like Diego Riviera. Joining the Communist Party in 1926, her connection to revolutionary ideals pushed her to the forefront of social change. After settling in Moscow and joining the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, she gave up photography altogether in 1931 to devote herself to politics. Modotti passed away unexpectedly in 1942 at the age of 45. For decades her talent was overshadowed by mysteries and the absence of biographical information. It turned her life into a legend.
Tina Modotti was born in Udine (Italy) on Augst 16th. She was the daughter of a seamstress and a mechanic.
At the age of 16 she travelled from Italy to San Francisco on her own, where she met up with her father. During these early years, she worked in a tailor shop and discovered the cultural possibilities offered by the city.
She met the poet Roubaix de l’Abrie Richey (Robo), who became her partner and introduced her to the circle of Californian artists and writers.
Modotti worked as an actress in several silent films in Hollywood. She also modelled for a number of photographers, among them Edward Weston.
Modotti convinced Weston to move to Mexico City. She combines her photographic apprenticeship track with a growing political commitment. Immediately, Modotti created photographic formulas that focused on the denouncement of the living conditions of dispossessed people and Mexican workers without abandoning the formalism she had learned from Weston, paying specific attention to portraits of women and children.
Modotti became affiliated to the Mexican Communist Party.
1928 – 1929
Julio Antonio Mella, a young communist leader from Cuba, became Modotti’s partner for a few months in 1928.
A year later, Mella was assassinated on the street and Modotti suffered from intense media harassment. She travelled to Oaxaca – specifically to Juchitán and Tehuantepec – where she produced work that was more connected to street reportage.
She hosted an important solo exhibition at the vestibule of the Biblioteca Nacional de México.
In February she was arrested and expelled from the country under the false accusation of having participated in a plot to assassinate Mexican president Pascual Ortiz Rubio. Modotti travelled to Europe as a political prisoner. She lived in Berlin for a few months, producing a number of photographs. In autumn she moved to the Soviet Union, working full time for International Red Aid (MOPR). This can be considered the point at which she quit photography.
She participated in the Women’s International Committee Against War and Fascism, organizing a critical exhibition on Italian fascism for the occasion.
The victory of the Frente Popular and the outbreak of the Civil War caught Modotti by surprise in Spain. As part of Spanish International Red Aid, she actively participated in the organization of military hospitals, created shelters and aid centres for civilians, edited the magazine Ayuda (“Help”), and arranged adoption networks for refugee and orphaned children who were known as ‘niños de la guerra’ [“children of the war”].
She participated in the organization of the Second International Congress for the Defense of Culture that was hosted in Madrid, Valencia, and Barcelona in Spain. Modotti met María Teresa León, Rafael Alberti, Miguel Hernández, and Antonio Machada, among others. Edited Viento del pueblo [“Wind of the People”] by Miguel Hernández, a publication that combined photographic images with poems.
After returning to Mexico three year earlier under a false identity, Tina Modotti died from a heart attack in Mexico City on January 5th while returning to her house in a taxi. Her friends organised an exhibition paying tribute to her in Mexico City, where she was buried.