Monday, August 16, 2010

Tina Modotti

Today (...or maybe tomorrow?) is the birthday of Italian photographer, model, and political radical Tina Modotti.

Modotti was born Assunta Adelaide Luigia Modotti Mondini in Udine, Italy on August 16 (or 17), 1896. Her father was a militant member of a banned socialist group, and was blacklisted from working when Modotti was a teenager. When she was 16, the family immigrated to San Francisco.

Attracted to the performing arts supported by the Italian émigré community in the Bay Area, Modotti experimented with acting, appearing in several plays, operas and silent movies. In 1918, she entered into a relationship with Roubaix "Robo" de l'Abrie Richey. Modotti moved with him to Los Angeles in order to pursue a movie career, and the couple entered into a bohemian circle of friends that included Ricardo Gomez Robelo and the photographer Edward Weston.

By 1921, Modotti was Weston's favorite model and, by October of that year, his lover. Ricardo Gomez 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 City in December 1921 hoping to mount an exhibition of his and Weston's work. While she was on her way to be with Robo, Modotti received word of his death from smallpox. In March 1922, determined to see Robo's vision through, she mounted a two week exhibition of Robo's and Weston's work at the National Academy of Fine Arts. The sudden death of her father forced her return to San Francisco later that same month. On July 29, 1923, Modotti set sail for Mexico City with Weston and his son Chandler, leaving behind Weston's wife Flora and their three children. She agreed to run Weston's studio free of charge in return for a mentorship in photography.

Modotti flourished in post-revolutionary Mexico. Living with Weston, she befriended and modeled for Diego Riviera and threw herself into radical politics, including the unsuccessful campaign against the execution of the Italian anarchists Sacco and Vanzetti in 1927. She was constantly developing her practice as a photographer, using her connections to create an expanding portrait business. Kenneth Rexroth called her "the most spectacular person in Mexico City."

In 1927, Modotti joined the Mexican Communist Party and more of her work became politically motivated. Her photographs began appearing in publications such as "Mexican Folkways" and the radically motivated "Frente a Frente" and "El Machete." In December 1929, an exhibition of Modotti’s work was billed as "The First Revolutionary Photographic Exhibition In Mexico." Within a year she was deported from Mexico.

She moved around Europe for a while, finally settling in Moscow where, by most accounts, she joined a branch of the Soviet secret police. When the Spanish Civil War erupted in 1936, Modotti left Moscow for Spain, where she stayed and worked until the collapse of the Republican movement. In April 1939 Modotti left Spain and returned to Mexico under a pseudonym.

Modotti died in Mexico City in 1942 under suspicious circumstances - her death attributed by various sources to suicide, murder or heart failure. Her grave is located within the vast Panteón de Dolores in Mexico City.

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