Introduction & Biographical Essay | Resources | Image Sampler
Introduction & Biographical Essay
A recognized master of early twentieth century photography, Tina Modotti began her fine art and documentary photography career in Mexico in the 1920s while working with Edward Weston. The Library of Congress general collections provide excellent published resources to research her life and impact, including the magazines and books in which her work originally appeared. The Prints & Photographs Division has approximately 12 photos by Modotti (see the image sampler and LOT 14040). Most of these images represent her photojournalism work in Mexico documenting a Labor Day parade and communist party activities.
Despite her rudimentary formal education, Modotti (born Assunta Adelaide Luigia Modotti Mondini, nicknamed Assuntina, and later "Tina,") focused on intellectual matters. As a child in Udine, Italy, she visited her uncle's portrait studio and the school of photography. Modotti grew up among the working poor in a politically oriented family.1 In her teens she emigrated to San Francisco to join her father.
Modotti's striking physical appearance and artistic modes of expression led to brief careers as model, stage actress, and silent film actress. Perhaps her most memorable role was in The Tiger's Coat (1920). She appeared in three films, the last one in 1922.
In the 1920s, she began working with and posing for the renowned photographer Edward Weston in San Francisco. They embarked on a love affair, considered "one of the most exciting partnerships in photographic history."2 Modotti's husband, Robo (Roubaix de l'Abrie Richey) died during a visit to Mexico in February 1922. In July 1923, Modotti and Weston went to Mexico City to create art photography together.
In November 1925, Anita Brenner commissioned them to illustrate Idols Behind Altars, her book about Mexican art and history. From December 1925 to March 1926, Modotti was in San Francisco to help care for her ailing mother. While there, she received advice and encouragement from photographers Dorothea Lange, Imogen Cunningham and Consuelo Kanaga. When her mother's health improved, Modotti returned to Mexico with a Graflex camera (the type used by news photographers), determined to create her own kind of pictures.3
In the summer of 1926, Modotti and Weston resumed work to complete the Brenner project. By November, Modotti's dedication to politics and revolution so jarred with Weston's artistic objectives that he returned to the United States. Though they corresponded, they never saw each other again.
Modotti joined the Communist Party in late 1927, often supplying it free photographs. Some of her photographs appeared in the Mexican Communist newspaper, El Machéte.4 To support herself, Modotti made record photographs for the Mexican muralists and of Mexican crafts for publishers. During this same period, some of her art photographs were published in the Paris Left Bank avant garde art magazine, transition.
On the May Day Communist holiday in 1929, Modotti photographed a march protesting the persecution of members of the Communist Party. She covered the event from its calm beginning to its confrontational end. Most of the photographs that make up her narrative are small images made from a rooftop.
In early 1930 the Mexican government deported Modotti. Questioning whether photography could change the world politically, she dedicated herself to activism for the Communist Party. She worked for the humanitarian International Red Aid organization, directing international relief to the Republican cause in the Spanish Civil War. When the war ended in 1939, Modotti was deported from Spain.
Using an alias, Modotti lived quietly in Mexico City, avoiding most of her earlier acquaintances. On January 6, 1942, she died of an apparent heart attack alone in the back of a taxi. Given her political notoriety, some continue to question whether the cause of death was natural.
1 Letizia Argenteri. Tina Modotti: Between Art and Revolution. (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2003) 3 and 6.
2 Margaret Hooks. Tina Modotti: Masters of Photography. (New York: Aperture Foundation, 1999) 6.
3 Hooks, 125-127.
4 Liz Chilsen, "Synthesis of Art and Life: Tina Modotti's Photography in Mexico and the building of a Mexican National Identity." Photo Review 19.1, 8-9.
Prepared by: Beverly W. Brannan, Curator of Photography, Prints & Photographs Division, 2010. Last revised: September 2010.