Tuesday, May 26, 2015

Tina Modotti: Photographer who led a Controversial Life

Edward Weston
Tina Modotti
ca 1925
Gelatin Silver Print
Nicknamed Assuntina, and later Tina, Tina Modotti was born in UdineFriuli, Italy, the daughter of an Italian machinist who immigrated to the United States in 1906. Despite her rudimentary formal education, Modotti focused on intellectual matters. She grew up among the working poor and politically motivated. Modotti toiled in a textile factory before joining her father in 1913 in San Francisco, where she worked as a seamstress and dressmaker. Attracted to the lively performing arts scene in the Italian emigre community in the San Francisco Bay Area, Modotti tried acting. Her striking appearance and artistic modes of expression led to brief careers in the theater,  opera, and even silent films during the late 1910s and early 1920s. She worked as an artist's model as well.

Modotti married American painter and poet Roubaix "Robo" del L'Abrie Richey in 1918 and the couple moved to Los Angeles to pursue a career in the burgeoning motion picture industry. Modotti met photographer Edward Weston and his assistant Margrethe Mather and, by 1921, she was his favorite model and his lover by the end of that year. Robo left Los Angeles for Mexico where he died of smallpox while on vacation two days before she arrived.
Edward Weston
Tina Modotti
ca 1925
Photograph
Gelatin Silver Print

When Weston moved to Mexico City two years later in 1923, Modotti became first his assistant, apprentice and eventually his partner in a joint photographic enterprise. The close-up vantage points and lack of context in her early work attest to the influence of Weston and his emphasis on “the thing itself,” but, as Modotti gained experience, her images took on a personal character. The couple embraced the capitol's bohemian scene and used their connections to begin a portrait business.

When Weston returned to California  in 1926, Modotti stayed behind. In 1927 she joined the Communist Party, and her political affiliations and activities changed the direction of her work. She published her images, including portrait studies, in the magazines Mexican FolkwaysFormas, and the more radical El Machete

Tina Modotti
A proud little agrarista or better son of one 
ca 1927
Gelatin Silver Print
Modotti became the photographer for the Mexican mural movement and documented the works of such artists as Clemente Orozco and Diego Rivera. In addition, she experimented with architectural interiors, flowers, and urban landscapes, especially with her poetic portraits of peasants and workers. 

Modotti's one-woman show at the National Library held in December 1929 was advertised as "The First Revolutionary Photographic Exhibition in Mexico." The apex of her career as a photographer would quickly plummet within a year.


Tina Modotti
Market Scene
ca 1927
Gelatin Silver Print
Political and economic issues in Mexico, Central and South America intensified with repression of political dissidents. Modotti's comrade and companion Julio Antonio Mella was assassinated by what were assumed to be agents of the Cuban government in January 1929 and shortly thereafter, an attempt was made on the president. Modotti-target of both the Mexican and Italian police-was questioned about both crimes during a a concerted anti-Communist, anti-immigrant press campaign that depicted her as the "fierce and bloody Tina Modotti," perpetrator of the crimes. 

As a result of the anti-Communist campaign by the Mexican government, Modotti was expelled from the country in 1930 and placed under guard on a ship bound for Rotterdam. The Italian government repeatedly attempted extradition but she managed to evade it by her connections with International Red Aid Activists. Modotti's limited visa allowed for her final destination to be Italy. She stopped in Germany and Switzerland on her way there and was convinced by the deteriorating situation in Germany to move to Moscow in 1931. 
Tina Modotti
Woman of Tehuantepec
ca 1929
Gelatin Silver Print
The Italian government repeatedly attempted extradition but she managed to evade it by her connections with International Red Aid Activists. During the next several years, Modotti worked for various missions on behalf of the International Workers' organizations and the Comintern in Europe. When the Spanish Civil War erupted in 1936, she left Moscow for Spain where she stayed until 1939. Following the collapse of the Republican movement in Spain, Modotti returned to Mexico under a pseudonym and avoided contact with her former comrades. She died of heart failure in Mexico City under what some believe are suspicious circumstances. Her brief career in photography lasted only seven years, but Modotti produced a body of work that included evocative images.  


Tina Modotti
Hands of the Puppeteer
ca 1929
Gelatin Silver Print
Tina Modotti
Misery
ca 1928
Gelatin Silver Print

Tina Modotti
Pinatas
ca 1926
Gelatin Silver Print
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Sources
1. The Web Museum, Tina Modotti, Biography, http://www.modotti.com/?page_id=5, retrieved May 26, 2015.
2. Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Reading Room, Women Photojournalists, Tina Modotti, http://www.loc.gov/rr/print/coll/womphotoj/modottiessay.html, retrieved May 26, 2015.
3. Encyclopedia Britannica, Tina Modotti, Italian Photographer, http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/1160291/Tina-Modotti, retrieved May 26, 2015.
4. George Eastman House, Still Photograph Archive, http://www.geh.org/ar/strip87/htmlsrc3/modotti_sld00001.html, retrieved May 26, 2015.