Tina Modotti was a compelling photographer, political activist, silent film actress, and model for some of the greatest artists of the 1920s, men whose shadows continue to fall over her work. In particular, her association as mistress, muse, and apprentice for photographer Edward Weston tends to be emphasized in discussions of her own photography. In the preface to Tina Modotti: Photographer & Revolutionary, Margaret Hooks cites an art historian who once “disparagingly posed the question, ‘Would we be interested in Tina Modotti today if we didn’t have those pictures of her by Edward Weston?’” Hooks affirmatively answers “yes,” and argues for the importance and independence of Modotti’s practice in this biography.
First published in 1993, Tina Modotti: Photographer & Revolutionary was recently reissued by La Fábrica. The extensive book does have Weston’s photographs of Modotti, from close portraits to full nudes like “Tina [nude on the azotea]” (1923). Yet this is her story, not his, and Hooks chronicles in detail how the Italian immigrant to the United States had an accomplished and diverse career, until her sudden death in 1942 at the age of 45. Punctuating the text are selections from the approximately 400 images she created.
“Having learned the art of photography initially under Weston’s tutelage, Modotti became an outstanding photographer in her own right, with her own clientele, her own methodology, and certainly her own vision,” Hooks writes. “In the space of a few years she achieved a standard of work it has taken lesser artists a lifetime to reach. Nevertheless, there has been a predominant tendency to view Tina Modotti through the filter of Edward Weston’s camera and writings.”
Modotti met Weston when they were both in Los Angeles, and both in relationships with other people. Modotti had some success in the silent films of Hollywood, starring in The Tiger’s Coat (1920), but she had a background with photography, having spent time at her uncle’s studio in Italy while she was a child, and her father’s in San Francisco. In 1923, she and Weston moved to Mexico City, and there started a studio. Some of Modotti’s early images are studies of flowers, concentrating on their delicate patterns. “Weston taught her his basic method of enlargement which she would use virtually for the rest of her career: from the original negative, she made an enlarged positive and from that she made a new larger negative, using this to make the final print by contact,” Hooks explains. “At this time, they both preferred using platinum or palladium paper which made printing slow and tedious but gave the final print rich, warm tones.”
Soon Modotti was drawn to the political activism broiling in Mexico, joining the Communist Party in 1926, and captured some of her most striking images. One closely frames a washerwoman’s weathered hands, another called “Mexican Peasants Reading El Machete” (1928) views the readers’ hats overlapping and framing the radical newspaper. “Putting her art at the service of revolutionary politics, she used her camera to portray social injustice, photographing workers, political rallies, and the poor, like the Mexican peasant boy with his big sombrero, whom she dubbed ‘A proud little agrarista or better, son of one,'” Hooks writes.
Many of her photographs also focused on the mural movement, and she modeled several times for Diego Rivera, including posing in 1925 for his Chapingo murals. Then in 1929 her already tumultuous life was upended when her lover, the Cuban revolutionary Julio Antoio Mella, was shot. Marked as a suspect, she was deported, and before she left gave up her cameras, the fate of which is still mysterious. After spending time in Paris, Berlin, and Moscow, and working for the Red Aid communist organization, a strange twist brought her back to Mexico. Refused entry in New York in 1939, she was put on a ship to Veracruz. Her return was brief. In 1942, she had a heart attack in the back of a taxi, though some suspected it was an assassination.
Hooks writes that she aims to “demythologize Modotti the legend, extricate her from the shadows of her lovers and locate the woman and the artist at the centre of her own history.” There was a span of a few decades following her death when her work was mostly overlooked, and around 100 of her photographs were rediscovered in the 1990s in an Oregon farmhouse. Now her photographs are increasingly recognized for their place in the Mexican Renaissance, featuring in recent exhibitions such as Mexique 1900–1950 at the Grand Palais in Paris, and Agitprop! at the Brooklyn Museum. Although she was active as a photographer for only nine years, her legacy of championing the laborer and her empathetic lens for the people of Mexico deserves its own attention.