Tina Modotti was an Italian photographer, model, actress, and revolutionary political activist. Modotti was born Assunta Adelaide Luigia Modotti Mondini in Udine, Friuli, Italy. In 1913, at the age of 16, she emigrated to the United States to join her father in San Francisco, California. Attracted to the performing arts supported by the Italian émigré community in the San Francisco Bay Area, Modotti experimented with acting. She appeared in several plays, operas, and silent movies in the late 1910s and early 1920s, and also worked as an artist's model.
In 1918, she entered into a relationship with Roubaix Robo de l'Abrie Richey. Originally a farm boy from Oregon named Ruby, the artist and poet assumed the more bohemian name Roubaix. Modotti moved with him to Los Angeles in order to pursue a career in the motion picture industry. Although the couple cohabitated and lived as a married couple, they were not married. Often playing the femme fatale, Modotti's movie career culminated in the 1920 film The Tiger's Coat. She had minor parts in two other films.
The couple entered into a bohemian circle of friends. One of these fellow bohemians was Ricardo Gómez Robelo. Another was the photographer, Edward Weston. Some have suggested that Modotti was introduced to photography as a young girl in Italy, where her uncle, Pietro Modotti, maintained a photography studio. Later in the U.S., her father briefly ran a similar studio in San Francisco. While in Los Angeles, she met the photographer Edward Weston and his creative partner Margrethe Mather. It was through her relationship with Edward Weston that Modotti developed as an important fine art photographer and documentarian. By 1921, Modotti was Weston's favorite model and, by October of that year, his lover. Ricardo Gómez Robelo became the head of Mexico's Ministry of Education's Fine Arts Department, and persuaded Robo to come to Mexico with a promise of a job and a studio.
Robo left for Mexico in December 1921. Unaware of his affair with Modotti, Robo took with him prints of Weston, hoping to mount an exhibition of his and Weston's work in Mexico. While she was on her way to be with Robo, Modotti received word of his death from smallpox on February 9, 1922. Devastated, Modotti arrived two days after his death. In March 1922, determined to see Robo's vision realized, she mounted a two week exhibition of Robo's and Weston's work at the National Academy of Fine Arts in Mexico City. She sustained a second loss with the death of her father which forced her return to San Francisco later in March 1922. On July 29, 1923, Modotti set sail for Mexico City with Weston and his son Chandler, leaving behind Weston's wife Flora and remaining three children. She agreed to run Weston's studio free of charge in return for his mentoring her in photography.
Mexican photographer Manuel Álvarez Bravo divided Modotti’s career as a photographer into two distinct categories: Romantic and Revolutionary, with the former period including her time spent as Weston’s darkroom assistant, office manager and, finally, creative partner. Together they opened a portrait studio in Mexico City and were commissioned to travel around Mexico taking photographs for Anita Brenner’s book Idols Behind Altars. The relative contributions of Modotti and Weston to the project have been debated. Edward Weston's son, Brett Weston, who accompanied the two on the project, indicated that the photographs were taken by Edward Weston.
In general, Weston was moved by the landscape and folk art of Mexico to create abstract works, while Modotti was more captivated by the people of Mexico and blended this human interest with a modernist aesthetic. In Mexico, Modotti found a community of cultural and political avant-gardists. She became the photographer of choice for the blossoming Mexican mural movement, documenting the works of José Clemente Orozco and Diego Rivera. Her visual vocabulary matured during this period, such as her formal experiments with architectural interiors, flowers, and urban landscapes, and especially in her many lyrical images of peasants and workers. Indeed, her one-woman retrospective exhibition at the National Library in December 1929 was advertised as The First Revolutionary Photographic Exhibition In Mexico.
Modotti and Weston quickly gravitated toward the capital's bohemian scene, and used their connections to create an expanding portrait business. It was also during this time that Modotti met several political radicals and Communists, including three Mexican Communist Party leaders who would all eventually become romantically linked with Modotti: Xavier Guerrero, Julio Antonio Mella, and Vittorio Vidali.
Starting in 1927, a much more politically active Modotti (she joined the Mexican Communist Party that year) found her focus shifting and more of her work becoming politically motivated. Around that period, her photographs began appearing in publications such as Mexican Folkways, Forma, and the more radically motivated El Machete, Arbeiter-Illustrierte-Zeitung (AIZ), and New Masses.
In 1942, during a visit by her close friend, Swiss architect Hannes Meyer, Modotti died from heart failure in Mexico City under what is viewed by some as suspicious circumstances. After hearing about her death, Diego Rivera suggested that Vidali had orchestrated it. Modotti may have 'known too much' about Vidali's activities in Spain, which included a rumoured 400 executions. An autopsy showed that she died of natural causes, namely congestive heart failure. Her grave is located within the vast Panteón de Dolores in Mexico City.
Modotti's work was rediscovered in the United States when 90 vintage prints were exhibited at the Philadelphia Museum of Art in 1996. Martha Chahroudi, the museum's curator of photography, organized the exhibit. In order to raise funds for the show, the singer Madonna auctioned off her 1963 Mercedes-Benz. Madonna has become a major collector of Modotti's work.
Prior to the presentation of her work in the U.S., Modotti's photographs have been shown in Italy, Poland, Germany, Austria, and other countries. The largest exhibition of her work opened at Kunst Haus Wien in Vienna on June 30, 2010. It presented 250 photographs, many never shown before. The exhibition is based on the collections of Galerie Bilderwelt, Berlin and Spencer Throckmorton, NYC and curated by Reinhard Schultz.