|Tina Modotti 1924, by Edward Weston|
As a young immigrant to the United States, Tina lived in San Francisco and then in Los Angeles, becoming involved in film and meeting Edward Weston, who financed his photography with a portraiture business. Tina became his favorite model. When Tina decided to move to Mexico, Weston left his family (though taking his eldest son with him) and went with her. Tina apprenticed herself to Weston, learning photography and print-making, and in return, managed the studio they opened in Mexico City.
Mexico was in a cultural renaissance and Weston’s photos of Tina were published ahead of their arrival. They were welcomed everywhere. Their friends included the Mexican muralists Diego Rivera, Siqueiros, Orozco and many others. Tina’s photographs (made with the large format cameras Weston favored) began to be published and shown alongside Weston’s. She became the favorite documentation photographer for the muralists. Rivera met Frieda Kahlo at one of Tina’s parties.
“Tina had become increasingly idealistic and was moving towards a deeper commitment to revolutionary art and politics,” writes her biographer Margaret Hooks in Tina Modotti: Photographer and Revolutionary. The great love between Weston and Tina eroded due to jealousy. Both of them took lovers as they pleased. When Weston returned to California in 1926, Tina took an apartment which became a center for local communist leaders and political exiles. She also began to photograph social injustice, political rallies, workers and the poor.
In 1927, Tina became a member of the communist party. She was involved with Xavier Guerrero and the Cuban Julio Antonio Mella whose assassination was never solved. A student who knew her at the time writes: “She was a free woman; I mean, she did not have the usual limitations that women in Mexico had. She was very intelligent and quick to express herself, a rapid thinker … extroverted and very sure of herself. What immediately attracted you to her was her great human empathy.” As the political stew thickened around her, she was estranged from Diego Rivera because of politics. She became the victim of sensationalist journalism and police surveillance. In 1930 she was arrested and deported to Europe.
In Europe, Tina was no longer able to support herself with photography. She worked for communist aid organizations and went to Moscow with the nefarious Italian operative Vittorio Vidali. In Moscow, she gave up her camera and photographic work. During the Spanish Civil War, she was in Spain, working in hospitals, sometimes in disguise, for the Republicans. As Spain fell to the Fascists, Tina joined a wave of refugees crossing the Pyrenees into France with no more than the clothes on her back.
When Tina tried to land in New York in 1939, her sister waiting for her, she was turned away. Immigration officials were reluctant to let in Spanish refugees and insisted Tina continue on to Mexico. She traveled under an assumed name, but was terrified Mexico would not take her back. She did get back in to Mexico, however, and spent her time working with aid organizations for the Spanish refugees. Her health grew poor and she stayed home more, typing and translating. She died in a taxi of heart failure three years later.
I first learned about Tina from the Daybooks of Edward Weston. The work Weston did in Mexico depended upon Tina’s friendships and language abilities but when he left Tina in Mexico, I lost track of this intriguing, mysterious woman. In Margaret Hooks’ above-mentioned book the rest of the story is told. The book is filled with portraits of her by Weston as well as her own most famous photographs.
Modotti’s work is the complement of Edward Weston’s. She said at one point, “I cannot solve the problem of life by losing myself in the problem of art.” Weston had said the opposite. Her epitaph was written by Pablo Neruda:
“Pure your gentle name, pure your fragile life,
bees, shadows, fire, snow, silence and foam,
combined with steel and wire and
pollen to make up your firm
and delicate being.”