Tina Modotti has been called the best unknown photographer of the 20th Century. She photographed for only seven years — from 1923 until 1930, mostly in Mexico. Many know her more for her often glamorized life, which intersected with many of the leading artists and political revolutionaries of the day. However, her work as a photographer produced striking images that combine social content and a modernist aesthetic.
Given the current recognition for the artistic achievements of Modotti’s short career, there can be no doubt that her contribution was noteworthy, her talent beyond dismissal. Yet both have been diminished in comparison to her role as friend, lover, and student of and artist’s model for photographer Edward Weston, whose nude studies of her are among his best known works. She was also one of Diego Rivera’s numerous lovers and models. So although many have heard of the legendary Tina Modotti, few are familiar with her photography.
Modotti’s striking images represent the unforgettable artist who created them an independent, liberated woman of incredible talent, intelligence, social commitment, determination, and passion for life and its pleasures who, despite her many accomplishments, was relegated to the sidelines.
For Modotti, who was born in 1896 in Udine, Italy, politics and photography were part of life from the beginning. Her uncle was a photographer and her father was likely a Socialist. These influences, and the economic hardships overshadowing her early years, probably predisposed her to adopt later radical sensibilities.
She quit school at 13 to go to work and at 16 she left her mother and siblings in Italy and came to San Francisco, where her father lived. Modotti worked as a seamstress and model for I. Magnin before beginning to act in local Italian theatrical productions. By 1919 six years after her arrival in the United States she was starring in silent films in Hollywood (though she was typecast as a Mexican servant or a fiery Latin lover).
The turning point in her notoriety, if not in her artistic sensibility, came in 1920, when Modotti met Weston. A few years later she persuaded him to move with her to Mexico City, agreeing to manage his studio in exchange for photography lessons.
Her facility with languages (she spoke Italian, Spanish, English, and German) eased their introduction to Mexico’s vibrant artists’ community, which included Rivera, Rufino Tamayo, and David Alfaro Siqueiros. A fast learner, Modotti was soon publishing her work, and when Weston returned to the United States in 1926 she stayed in Mexico, deepening her political activism.
She also increasingly focused her attention and her camera lens on Mexico’s workers and peasants, and on the country’s poverty, its growing unrest, and its gradual advances toward modernization. Modotti joined the Mexican Communist Party in 1927 and in 1930 she was arrested as an enemy of the state, briefly imprisoned, and then deported.
She went first to Berlin, where she snapped her last photographs, and then to Moscow, where she is suspected of having joined Stalin’s secret police. With her lover, Communist leader Vitorio Vidali, she acted on behalf of political prisoners in France, and during the Spanish Civil War, under the “nom de guerre” Maria, she worked in hospitals and shepherded orphans to safe houses.
When Madrid fell to Franco in 1939 she escaped over the Pyrenees. Modotti eventually made it to New York, but she was refused entry and put on a boat to Mexico, where she won asylum as a Spanish Civil War refugee. She died there three years later. Her occupation at the time of her death was listed as “housewife.”
Originally posted December 2010, this piece is adapted from an article by Victoria Alba in the San Francisco Bay Guardian