Tina Modotti (16 August 1896 – 5 January 1942)
Tina Modotti was born in 1896, in Uglini, Italy, as Assunta Adelaide Luigia Modotti Mondini, to parents Assunta, a seamstress, and Giuseppe, a mason. Forty five years later, when Modotti died in Mexico City, her death certificate recorded her occupation as ‘housewife’. This label belies the remarkable and varied talents and occupations of Modotti during her short life: seamstress, actress, model, photographer, and political activist.
Poverty forced the Modotti family to emigrate, initially to Austria, then America. At the age of 16 Modotti arrived in San Francisco, working first in a textile factory, and then as a hat maker, before moving to Los Angeles in 1918 with her exotic lover, the painter and poet Roubaix de l’Abrie Richey (“Robo”). In Hollywood Modotti starred in silent films such as The Tiger’s Coat (1920), Riding with Death (1920) and I Can’t Explain (1922).
Tina Modotti in The Tiger’s Coat, 1920
Robo’s circle was bohemian, and his studio a meeting place for artists and writers. Modotti posed as a model for many, and it was here that she met the photographer Edward Weston, with whom she began an affair, just as she and Robo were planning to move to Mexico. Tragically, Robo died of smallpox in Mexico as Modotti travelled to join him, but the move still went ahead, this time with Weston accompanying Modotti. They set up a photography studio together, Modotti looking after the business side of things, in exchange for photography lessons from Weston.
Edward Weston, Nude, 1923 (67N),
(image source: www.fotocommunity.it)
Weston’s photographs of Modotti show her as a sensual and exotic creature, often languishing nude, her eyes closed or half closed, but it would be simplistic to think of Modotti as a passive muse and object of Weston’s gaze. Her management of Weston’s business venture, and her growing knowledge of the photographic process, makes her instead an active partner and collaborator, fully aware of the effects that could be achieved from her presence on the other side of the camera.
Modotti’s own photographic practice grew from strength to strength during her time in Mexico; she was not afraid to experiment with composition or technique, and embraced socialist subject matter, becoming the preferred photographer of the Mexican muralists, led by Diego Rivera.
Throughout her life, Modotti struggled to reconcile her two main passions of photography and politics. She wrote to Weston: ‘I cannot – as you once proposed to me – “solve the problem of life by losing myself in the problem of art” – Not only I cannot do that, but I even feel that the problem of life hinders my problem of art.’
Modotti’s attempt at reconciling ‘the problem of life and the problem of art’ is evident in her photographic blending of formalist aesthetics with socialist subject matter, for example in one of her most famous works, Los Campesinos, 1926. For this image, Modotti cropped and enlarged a detail from another photograph she took of the same subject – the Labour Day parade in Mexico City – that included more figures and the political banners they carried. This cropping and abstraction of the sombreros into an overall pattern with no focal point, however, only adds to the political undertones of the work: the individual is subordinate to the collective behaviour of the crowd, directed towards one common goal, that of Mexican socialism and workers’ rights.
Tina Modotti, Los Campesinos (Workers Parade), 1926,
(image source: www.fotocommunity.it)
In art as in life, Modotti split with Weston, and her photographic practice became ever more political. In 1927, she joined the Communist party, and working for El Machete, took photographs that highlighted the plight of Mexican peasants, and furthered the socialist mission.
Tina Modotti, Men Reading El Machete, 1926,
(image source: www.saint-lucy.com)
From 1930 onwards, Modotti stopped taking photographs, because it was impossible to do ‘two jobs well.’ Her commitment to politics never wavered, as she moved between Berlin, Moscow, Paris and Mexico, becoming embroiled in scandals and murder trials, and possibly working as a spy, before her untimely death in 1942. On her tombstone, these words by poet Pablo Neruda, speak of Modotti’s combination of gentleness and strength, which could equally be applied to her photographs.
Pure your gentle name, pure your fragile life,
bees, shadows, fire, snow, silence and foam,
combined with steel and wire and
pollen to make up your firm
and delicate being.
It is not always those who shout the loudest that have the most to say.
Selected Recommended Reading:
Patricia Albers, Shadows, Fire, Snow: The Life of Tina Modotti, University of California Press, (1999).
Letizia Argenteri, Tina Modotti: Between Art and Revolution, Yale University Press, (2003).
Margaret Hooks, Tina Modotti: Photographer and Revolutionary, Pandora, (1993).
Andrea Noble, Tina Modotti: Image, Texture, Photography, University of New Mexico Press, (2000).