Modotti, Tina (1896–1942)
Modotti, Tina (1896–1942)
Italian photographer—specializing in portraits, still lifes, architecture, and documentary work—and activist. Born Assunta Adelaide Luigia Modotti on August 16, 1896, in Udine, Italy; died on January 5, 1942, in Mexico City, Mexico; daughter of Giuseppe Modotti (a mason) and Assunta Modotti; married Roubaix de L'Abrie Richey (an American poet and painter), in 1917 (died 1922); no children.
Emigrated to United States (1913); lived in Los Angeles following marriage (1917); appeared in several films (1920–21); met photographer Edward Weston (1920); began liaison with Weston (1921); following death of husband, moved to Mexico with Weston as assistant, apprentice, model, and mistress (1922); took first serious photograph in Mexico (1923); began publishing work (1926); joined Communist Party (1927); met Vittorio Vidali (June 1927); began affair with Cuban revolutionary Julio Antonio Mella (June 1928); Mella assassinated (January 1929); although not involved, arrested, then deported following assassination attempt on Mexican president (February 1930); moved to Soviet Union (fall 1930); abandoned photography in favor of revolutionary party work (1931); left Soviet Union, was barred from entering Spain and moved to Paris (1934); joined Vidali in Spain (1935); active in Spanish Civil War (1936–39); returned to Mexico as a refugee (April 1939).
Although largely unrecognized as an artist and known primarily as the apprentice and mistress of American photographer Edward Weston before the 1970s, Tina Modotti has since assumed her place in the pantheon of important 20th-century photographers; she was also an ardent revolutionary and Communist Party member. Born Assunta Adelaide Luigia Modotti in 1896 in Udine, Italy, as a small child she was called "Assuntina," which gradually became "Tina." She was the second of six children of Assunta and Giuseppe Modotti, a mason who emigrated to the United States when she was a child. She worked at an Udine textile factory to help support the family during her father's absence, and in 1913 joined him in San Francisco, where she soon found work in a similar factory. After the rest of the family arrived in the United States, Modotti was the only one of the six children who worked. Eventually she left the factory, turning to dressmaking and delivery work to earn more money, and also took part in some amateur theater productions in the Italian quarter of the city. At the Pan Pacific International Exposition in San Francisco in 1915, she met Roubaix de L'Abrie Richey, or "Robo," an American poet and painter of French-Canadian ancestry. The couple married two years later and moved to Los Angeles, where in 1920 Modotti began to appear in films, usually cast as a Gypsy or a harem girl.
That same year she met photographer Edward Weston, whose aesthetic would influence much of 20th-century American photography. They began an affair in 1921, although it appears to have been no threat to her marriage. Seeking a more favorable artistic environment, Richey went to Mexico in December 1921. There he caught smallpox and died the following February. Modotti traveled to Mexico to handle the funeral arrangements for her husband, and returned there in 1923 with Weston, acting as his assistant, apprentice, and model. They lived in Mexico City, associating with artists and political revolutionaries. Modotti, who took her first serious photograph in Mexico in 1923, helped Weston provide photographs for Anita Brenner 's book Idols behind Altars. Modotti began to specialize in portraits, still lifes, architecture, and documentary photographs, and gradually produced a respectable body of work. She and Weston held a joint exhibit in 1925 at the State Museum in Guadalajara; they exhibited together again in 1926. That year, she also began publishing her work in the Mexican magazines Formas and Mexican Folkways. Her biographer Mildred Constantine notes that Modotti's work "attracted accolades not only from her fellow artists, but also from the thousands of workers who passed in awe before her irrefutable denunciations of the living conditions of the poor."
In 1926, Modotti and Weston separated, and he returned to his family in Glendale, California, although they remained devoted friends and corresponded regularly until 1931. By the time of his departure, she already may have become involved with Xavier Guererro, a revolutionary whom she had first met in Los Angeles in 1923. In 1927, she formally joined the Communist
Party and met Italian political activist Vittorio Vidali, who would become her mentor and, later, her companion. Modotti's reputation as a photographer continued to grow, and her work was much in demand, with requests from the Pacific International Salon of Photographic Art, the British Journal of Photography, and New York City's Creative Art magazine. During this time, she also often worked with the editor of El Machete, the official organ of the Mexican Communist Party. In June 1928, she met Cuban revolutionary Julio Antonio Mella, and by September they were living together. Their affair was to be short-lived, however, for in January 1929 Mella was assassinated while they walked to their apartment. An investigation cleared Modotti of any involvement, and implicated the Mexican government and police.
On February 5, 1930, President Pascual Ortiz Rubio was the victim of an assassination attempt soon after his inauguration. Although she had not been involved, Modotti was arrested and accused of being a party to a conspiracy to kill the president. She was detained for 13 days and then deported from Mexico. Modotti had refused the visa the United States had offered her on condition that she cease her political activity, and so she sailed for Europe. In Rotterdam, met with the news that Italy was demanding her extradition, she was granted temporary asylum under the condition that she leave Dutch territory immediately. Communist Party associates arranged for her entry to Germany, and she spent the next six months in Berlin before moving to the Soviet Union in the fall of 1930. There she renewed her friendship with Vittorio Vidali.
Although photography was a respected occupation, having enjoyed a significant role in the development of the Soviet arts scene in the 1920s, Modotti appears to have abandoned her camera after 1931 in favor of full immersion in political activity. For the next several years, she worked for the Soviet International Red Aid, both inside the Soviet Union and in Europe. In 1934, she left Moscow to join Vidali in Spain, where he had been living since the Spanish Republic had superseded the monarchy in 1931. She was turned back at the border, however, and lived temporarily in Paris, supporting herself by translating and continuing to work for the Communist underground. At the end of 1935, Modotti was finally allowed entry into Spain. The Spanish Civil War began in July 1936, and, as "Maria," she worked with Vidali as a Republican revolutionary. Vidali, known as "Carlos Contreras," formed the famed Fifth Regiment, in which Modotti enlisted. She worked at the front and also as a reporter for the Spanish Red Aid weekly, Ayuda. When Franco's Nationalists won the war in 1939, Modotti returned as a refugee to Mexico, where the political climate had changed in her absence.
There, Modotti worked as a translator and continued to function as a political activist. In the early 1940s, she returned to photography, but on January 5, 1942, after leaving a friend's home late at night, she died in the back seat of a taxi. Although it was persistently rumored that she had been poisoned, it is more likely that she suffered a massive heart attack. Thousands of mourners attended her funeral, after which she was buried at the Pantheon of Dolores.
Constantine, Mildred. Tina Modotti: A Fragile Life. San Francisco, CA: Chronicle Books, 1993.
Publishers Weekly. September 4, 1995.
Rosenblum, Naomi. A History of Women Photographers. NY: Abbeville Press, 1994.
Albers, Patricia. Shadows, Fire, and Snow: The Life of Tina Modotti. NY: Clarkson Potter, 1999.
Hooks, Margaret. Tina Modotti: Photographer and Revolutionary. San Francisco, CA: Harper, 1993.
Lowe, Sarah M. Tina Modotti: Photographs. NY: Abrams, 1995.
Ellen Dennis French , freelance writer, Murrieta, California