Born in Udine, Italy on August 16/17, 1896, Tina Modotti was the third child in a large, impoverished family of laborers. Her father was a factory worker and labor organizer who exerted a strong influence upon his daughter's sociopolitical beliefs. As a child, she had to work in her hometown's sweatshops to earn money for her family, and these experiences further cemented her kinship with laborers. During her teenage years, Miss Modotti followed her father to San Francisco in search of employment and better working conditions. Unfortunately, the family fared no better in the United States, and by age 14, Miss Modotti became the sole breadwinner, working for low wages in a silk factory. Undeterred, she also began designing her own clothes, acting in local theatrical productions, and interacting with artists. She married artist Roubaix de l'Abrie (Robo) Richey in 1916, and through him met American photographer Edward Weston, for whom she would leave her husband.
Mr. Weston also became Miss Modotti's professional mentor, and under his guidance, she began to experiment with various types of photographic processes including enlargement, cropping, photomontage, and multiple exposures. The couple left the United States to settle in Mexico, which would become Miss Modotti's adopted home and endless source of creative inspiration. She immersed herself in local culture and traveled in a left-wing circle that included husband-and-wife artists Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo. Miss Modotti's increasing political involvement contributed to her breakup with Edward Weston in 1926. Meanwhile, she continued taking photographs first with a 4x5 large format Corona camera and later with a slightly smaller Graflex camera. The Corona was used to photograph portraits and Mexican Renaissance murals while the Graflex was used to capture street scenes. Like Edward Weston, her composition was on ground glass, and her contact printing technique was achieved by placing the negative directly onto treated sensitized paper and then exposing it to the sunlight.
Miss Modotti's first photographs were still-lifes such as Roses (1924) and Two Callas (1925), in which she explored various types of composition, tone, and light. However, as she began focusing on outdoor photography, she began to develop a Modernist approach with social and poltical content reflective of the New Vision Renaissance. For Miss Modotti, Mexico's social unrest became her canvas upon which she painted images consistent with her leftist views. Her photographs of a laborer, ear of corn, or a hammer, symbolized her working class attitudes. Some of her best known New Vision photographs include Hands Resting on Tool (1927), Mexican Peasants Reading El Machete (1928), and Yank and Police Marionette (1929).
Unfortunately, Miss Modotti's personal life often overshadowed her photographs. Like her colleagues Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo, she joined the Communist Party, and in 1929 was accused of murdering her lover, Cuban activist Julio Antonio Mella. Fortunately, her well-connected friends won her an acquittal, but in 1930, Miss Modotti was arrested for an alleged assassination attempt on the President of Mexico, resulting in deportation to Europe. She became associated with the Bauhaus school of photography while living in Berlin, but within six months she was living in Moscow and opposing Fascism. She returned to Mexico in 1939, but did not resume her photographic career. Tina Modotti died of a heart attack on January 5, 1942.
Tina Modotti's photographs disappeared from public view until the early 1990s when Roses was auctioned off for $165,000, then the highest ever paid for a photograph at an auction. Two Callas was later auctioned for $170,000. In 1995, pop singer Madonna partially financed a retrospective exhibit of Tina Modotti's photographs at the Philadelphia Museum of Art.
2002 Artists from Latin American Cultures: A Biographical Dictionary (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press), pp. 185-188.
2006 Encyclopedia of Twentieth-Century Photography, Vol. I (New York: Routledge/Taylor & Francis Group LLC), pp. 1065-1066.
The Grove Encyclopedia of American Art, Vol. I (New York: Oxford University Press), p. 332.
2009 National Camera: Photography and Mexico's Image Environment (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press), p. 64.
1999 Shadows, Fire, Snow: The Life of Tina Modotti (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press), p. 386.
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