an actress, a photographer, a sometime revolutionary, a great beauty, and a great mystery.
(1896 – 1942)
Tina was born Assunta Adelaide Luigia Modotti Mondini in Udine, Italy. Her family was of humble financial means, well educated with radical political leanings. She was introduced to photography as a young girl in Italy, where her uncle, Pietro Modotti, maintained a photography studio. Years later in the U.S., her father opened a similar studio in San Francisco, where her interest undoubtedly developed further. When she was 16, in 1913, she sailed alone to New York and then took a train to San Francisco to join her father who had already immigrated to the United States. Working as a seamstress, she soon fell into a thriving artistic and political community, which included theater.
Tina had the capacity to fall in love for the first time over and over again, and the ability to believe that each one was, at last, the destined great love of her life so in 1918, she married Roubaix "Robo" de l'Abrie Richey, a poet and artist from Pleasant Valley, Oregon and moved to Los Angeles to pursue an acting career while continuing to model for artists. With her dark hair, full lips and, presence both in costume and out, she became a sought-after model in her circle of artists and photographers. Her biggest role was starring in A Tiger's Coat in 1920. http://www.sfmoma.org/multimedia/videos/152. After that she starred in many silent movie roles. In October 1920, a film magazine described her as a standard femme fatale of the era, “dangerous as the tiger whose tints and tones were in her eyes, her skin, her hair.” In those days, movie actors provided their own wardrobes. She had a fondness for dressing up and she sewed like an angel, and could afford exotic fabrics, to make fashionable outfits.
Around 1921, she met Edward Weston through social and artistic circles. Modotti posed for Weston, and they began a furtive love affair that is reflected in his photographs of her, which comprise some of his most erotic work. Her husband Robo went to Mexico to secure an art exhibition of his and Weston's work, while Modotti stayed back a few months before joining him. Robo developed smallpox while in Mexico and died just a few days after Modotti arrived.
Her life as a photographer started when she moved to Mexico with Edward Weston in 1923. In exchange for running his portrait studio, he would mentor her in photography. She always acknowledged his influence and guidance, and was especially grateful to him for turning her on to photography. Even when living in the same house, they never shared a bedroom, and Tina would have overnight guests. The open relationship idea had sounded good in theory, but Weston remarked, “Next time I’ll pick a mistress homely as hell.” Tina was not as jealous of his affairs. Weston left Mexico in 1926 and their affair ended.
Modotti’s career as a photographer can be characterized into two distinct categories: "Romantic" and "Revolutionary." Tina was drawn to the people and their struggles. She was saddened by the destitution of Mexico’s oppressed classes. She began focusing more on street photography and images of labor and workers. Her commitment to social and political causes continued to grow stronger. She joined the International Red Aid and photographed the murals of Diego Rivera, Jose Clemente Orozco, and Frida Kahlo. Her images were published in radical publications such as El Machete, Arbeiter-Illustrierte-Zeitung (AIZ), and New Masses. By December 1929, an exhibition of Tina Modotti’s work was billed as "The First Revolutionary Photographic Exhibition In Mexico." She had reached the zenith of her career as a photographer. At this time photography was going through a transition from "pictorialism" which emulated painting by manipulating negatives and using soft focus techniques to "modernism" which emphasized an unmanipulated negative, with high contrast, sharp focus, and emphasis on the abstract geometric structure of subjects. Modotti also experimented using a technique of sandwiching two different sized negatives of the same image and making contact prints. She would also splice two negatives together to achieve an intended statement or photographic aim
By the late 1920's, she had joined the Communist Party and was romantically involved with Julio Antonio Mella, founder of the Internationalized Cuban Community Party. When Mella was assassinated in 1929, Modotti was accused of the murder. After a scandalous trial, she was acquitted. In 1930, due to anti-communist campaigns in Mexico, she was deported from the country. She slowly gave up photography by the early 1930s. She spent the last ten years of her life under pseudonyms, moving from country to country, wherever the cause dictated where she went. She lived in Spain, the Soviet Union and finally came back to Mexico for the last few years of her life. She died of congestive heart failure in a taxicab in Mexico City in 1942. Her grave is located within the vast Panteón de Dolores in Mexico City.
“I never would have believed that I would be so strong and not lose my head in a situation where the wind of collective insanity is blowing.” “Not now” could mean “Maybe someday.” “Not now” could mean, “Not after all the things I’ve seen and done. Not ever.”–Tina Modotti.