Tina Modotti – Photographer and Revolutionary

Day 101 of Colourisation Project – August 16

Challenge: to publish daily a colourised photo that has some significance around the day of publication.

Born this day, August 16, 1896 in Udine Italy, Tina Modotti was an Italian photographer, model, actress, and political activist, though not necessarily in that order.

Tina Modotti went from silent-film actress and model, to becoming an anonymous muse for renowned photographer, Edward Weston, to ardent revolutionary in Mexico and possibly a spy in between times.

Tina Modotti

Photo: Edward Weston – Tina Modotti – Coloured by Loredana Crupi

It wasn’t until the 1990s, when a cache of her photographs was discovered in an Oregon farmhouse that her own photographic legacy and incredible story would come to light.

In 1913, at the age of 16, Modotti emigrated from Italy to the United States to join her father in San Francisco. There she was drawn to a creative circle of artists and writers. Her striking beauty helped launch her career as a model and then a stage and silent film actress. In 1918, she married artist and poet, Roubaix “Robo” de l’Abrie Richey (really a farm boy from Oregon named Ruby) and moved with him to Los Angeles in order to pursue a career in the motion picture industry.

She appeared in several plays, operas and silent movies in the early part of the century. Her most memorable role was in The Tiger’s Coat (1920). She appeared in two other films Riding With Death (1921) and I Can Explain (1922) before embarking fully on a career in photography.

Her marriage was short lived; her husband contracted smallpox and died during a visit to Mexico in February 1922, the same year her father died. Modotti fell into photography in Mexico in the 1920s while working with Edward Weston as his assistant and apprentice, producing early platinum prints of close-up photographs of still-lifes such as wine glasses, folds of fabric or flowers and finely composed architectural spaces.

In 1921, she had begun posing for Edward Weston and before long they embarked on a love affair, considered ‘one of the most exciting partnerships in photographic history.’ In 1923 Modotti and Weston, who had left his wife to be with Modotti, went to Mexico City to create photography together. Here they associated with the likes of Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo and the Chilean poet Pablo Neruda.

In 1925 Modotti returned briefly to San Francisco to help care for her sick mother. It was here after meeting with and receiving advice and encouragement from other leading female photographers such as Dorothea Lange, Imogen Cunningham and Consuelo Kanaga, that Modotti on her return to Mexico determined to carve out her own style of photography.

By the mid-1920s, Weston and Modotti were beginning to grow apart as was their approach to photography. While Weston saw himself as an artist, transforming even the most ordinary of objects into beautiful imagery, photography for Modotti was a means to document social change.

When Weston left Mexico in 1926, Modotti became even more politicised, joining the Mexican Communist party and working for El Machete. Her images began to take on a symbolic leftist bent, as can be seen in the photograph, Mexican Sombrero with Hammer and Sickle (1927). Her photography championed the lives of ordinary Mexican workers and documented the revolutionary spirit of the times.

At this time Modotti also documented the work of Mexico’s leading muralists, José Clemente Orozco and Diego Rivera, often featuring in murals herself. Though she never saw Weston again, they continued to correspond. Together they produced photographs for Anita Brenner’s book on Mexican art, Idols Behind Altars (1929). Her photographs also began appearing in publications such as Mexican Folkways, Forma, and the left wing newspaper, El Machete. One of her most famous works, Workers Reading El Machete, (1925) with its three nameless, faceless peasants, perfectly encapsulates both a nation and photographer in transition.

1929 was a turning point for Modotti as she was implicated in the murder of her lover, the Cuban revolutionary and communist writer Julio Antonio Mella. They had only been in a relationship for about a year, when on 8 January 1929 Mella was shot twice by an unknown assailant as they were walking home together. For the next week, Modotti, already a notorious figure due to Weston’s nudes was the prime suspect in the murder. She was eventually cleared and deported soon after in 1930.

The next decade saw Modotti moving between Berlin, Russia and Paris, becoming more involved in politics. Questioning the worth of photography as an instrument to bring about political change, Modotti dedicated herself to revolutionary and anti-fascist activities and took few photographs in this period. She fell in love with the Stalinist revolutionary, Vittorio Vidali, and worked for the humanitarian International Red Aid organization, as a nurse, directing international relief to the Republican cause in the Spanish Civil War… and possibly as a spy.

In 1939 after the fall of Madrid, Modotti left Spain with Vidali and returned to Mexico under a pseudonym. Back in her beloved Mexico, Modotti returned briefly to photography.

On January 6, 1942, on her way home from a dinner party at Pablo Neruda’s house, she died of an apparent heart attack alone in the back of a taxi. Given her notorious political journey and acquaintances, there was much speculation as to the cause of her death.

Viewed suspiciously, it was rumoured that she may have died in the service of the party and at the hands of her lover, Vidali. After hearing about her death, Diego Rivera suggested that Vidali had orchestrated it because Modotti knew too much about Vidali’s activities in Spain, where he was rumoured to have committed 400 executions.

The coroner ruled that Modotti’s death was the result of natural causes but suspicions of an assassination lingered for years. On the death certificate, her occupation was recorded as ‘housewife’.

Modotti was only 45. Pablo Neruda composed her epitaph, part of which is on her tombstone in Mexico City, where she was buried.  It also includes a relief portrait of Modotti by engraver Leopoldo Méndez:

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.

In her short but extraordinary life, Modotti’s beauty, passionate liaisons and political activism often overshadow her real contributions to photography and though her photographic career really only spanned over seven years, she is today recognized as a master of early twentieth century photography, with her work hanging in museums and galleries around the world,

If it was not for the discovery of the cache of unseen photographs in a trunk belonging to Robo’s descendants, Modotti’s contribution to photography may have eluded the world.


“I cannot, as you [Edward Weston] once proposed to me—“solve the problem of life by losing myself in the problem of art”… in my case, life is always struggling to predominate and art naturally suffers.”  –  Tina Modotti

This entry was posted in Art, Black & White, Colorization, Colourisation, History, Photography, Women, Women Photographers and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to Tina Modotti – Photographer and Revolutionary

  1. Pingback: Edward Weston – Master of Photography | Random Phoughts

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  3. Pingback: Enigmatic Margrethe Mather | Random Phoughts

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