Wednesday, 25 January 2012

Tina Modotti - a life less ordinary

Imagine, if you will, that you are walking along a suburban street with your loved one; this other person in this case is a man, it is January 1929. You consider him to be no ordinary man and you would be right. He is Julio Antonio Mella and is a young Marxist revolutionary leader in exile from Cuba. You are no ordinary woman. You are Tina Modotti. Here they are in a mural (detail below) by Diego Rivera.  As you walk and talk, as lovers do, someone - probably a man - comes to the side of you and shoots your lover dead at point blank range. The Mexican Government is keen to implicate you in the assassination  and you are arrested and put on trial. Rivera is instrumental in obtaining an acquittal.

Tina is portrayed distributing arms to the people. She looks up at her lover Julio Mella wearing the light hat, they have only recently become lovers and shortly will decide to live together which they do for the last few months of 1928. Rivero, recently returned from Russia as a guest to celebrate the 10th anniverary of the October revolution, has captured the passion in Modotti's eyes (not so Mella). Interposing compositionally between them, with the arched eyebrows, is Vittorio Vidali an Italian communist and assassin. Rivera would have known about Vidali, they were both communists, as were all in this mural,  though there were differences in their ideologues.  There are several versions of the murder of Mella; but what is consistent is that Modotti and Mella were walking arm in arm in a downtown street in Mexico City and Mella was shot at point blank range. Some witness statements have Vidali walking with the lovers, others have them on their own. There are reports that Vidali pulled the trigger. It is also documented that Vidali was enamoured by Modotti, but no confirmation of this exists, though there is evidence that Modotti came to hate Vidali. There is a theory that Rivera knew about the danger to Mella and had warned him, whether he knew that Vidali was the agent of the terror is not known, but with the benefit of hindsight, Rivero's portrait of Vidali is telling I think. This same assasin was also accused of being involved in the first (though not the second and ultimately successful) assassination attempt on Leo Trotsky whilst the erstwhile communist revolutionary was in exile in Mexico. Trotsky had become a lover of Frida Kahlo, the long term term lover and partner of Diego Rivera who painted the mural. It is Kahlo who is central to the mural, central to the life of Rivero and maybe central to the whole set of plots and sub-plots. Confused? Well Trotskyism versus Stalinism was the defining schism in post revolutionary Russia. Joe won out and was remorseless in dealing with his adversaries. In searching out dissident voices, Joe's reach was truly global and Central America was the same to him as the Caucus. This introduction paints a tiny, but brilliantly lit, period in Tina Modotti's life. But, in my view, serves to suggest that whilst Weston, and to a lesser extent his circle, created a photographer out of Modotti, the photographs that Modotti created were mined from a deeper well than Weston could have imagined. By comparison, whilst Weston is still lionised as one of the "great" twentieth century photographers, his oeuvre pails significantly when compared to the short but incandescent power of Modotti's  photographic life, which was fed by, and in turn fed her political life, all of which was cut short at the age of 45.

Tina Modotti only really had about seven years (1923 - 1930) as a dedicated photographer, so it might appear unusual to want to recommend her and her work in a photography student's learning log. Modotti's life though informed her photography, she had it in her blood - her father and uncle were photographers -  additionally she and Edward Weston were lovers and he taught her a lot about the technical side of photography, composition and a little about life and love. Modotti's photography mirrored her emotional and political life and eventually it was her life outside photography that drove both her image making and, eventually, her giving up photography for her political and emotional life.

Tina Modotti, 1924 (platinum photograph)
Weston, Edward Henry (1886-1958)
Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, Texas, USA - Bridgeman

Born Assunta Adelaide Luigia Modotti Mondini on 17th August, Udine, Italy. Her father, a socialist, left the family home, to help the families fortune and went to California via Austria. Tina started to work at the age of twleve and when her elder sister followed her father to the USA she became the sole breadwinner from when she was 14. She also followed her father to San Francisco when she was 16 and started working as a seamstress in a department store - I Magnin, then started to model for them. Tina soon became embroiled in the local Italian community, joined the amateur theatre group prompting her move to Hollywood and starting a short film career. Her involvement in "little Italy" exposed her to some radical political views which compounded the leftish position of her father, views which stayed with her for the remainder of her life and which, eventually, may have caused her early death, but it certainly consumed her to the point of dedicating her life to it over her art. She married "Robo" a middle class bohemian in Los Angeles before meeting Weston in 1921 when she was 24 (and within 2 weeks they were lovers, changing her life and her direction completely).  Robo, who had introduced her to an artistic set in Los Angeles, preaching amongst other things "free love" when hearing about Weston promptly upped sticks and left for Mexico. Modotti, for some reason, decided to follow, but within a few days of reaching him he died of smallpox. Her father also dies a short time later and she returned to California and to Weston and it was he - rather dupliciously I think - who suggested that the social mores of Los Angeles life was stifling him and they should go together to Mexico and, at his suggestion, engage in a contract that permitted "free love". There is some evidence that Modotti didn't particularly want this "contract" but nevertheless she agreed and they moved in 1923 to Mexico. It was therefore rather ironic that it was Weston, who later regretted this arrangement. Modotti ran Weston's studio and in return Weston taught her photography.

The stylisation of Modott's work in these early days in Mexico was perhaps rather derivative of Weston, who was still in thrall to Stieglitz as well as Sheeler and the other Precisionists; until 1922 Weston had been bivouacked in the Pictorialist camp under the influence of Steichen. Modotti however quickly developed her own style which was soon to reflect her political leanings.

Weston went back to California in 1926 after three years leaving Modotti to a large circle of artists. She met D H Lawrence amongst a host of other luminaries early on but most influential were the Mexican artists Diego Rivera and, by association Frida Kahlo these two met at a party in Modotti's house. Kahlo, who was bisexual had an affair with Leo Trotsky whilst he was on the run from Stalin. It is interesting to note that Modotti, when she went to Russia, had a problems with Stalinist Russia and the Stalinist approach to her photography. It is suggested in the film "Frida" "Frida and Tina" that these two were very close.

Halfway through her photographic career, she joins the Mexican Communist Party in 1927. In 1930 she is framed for the attempted murder of the Mexican President and deported from the country.  On the ship that she is deported on she finds herself accompanied by Vidali. Whether she has any idea of Vidali's possible involvement in the murder of Mella is not know at this time. Vidali attempts to get her to go to Moscow, but she goes to Berlin and finding it not to her liking she accepts Vidali's invitation and travels to Russia where she meets with Eisenstein. Her photography is viewed with some contempt by the Stalinist regime and by 1931 she has practically given up on photography. Modotti then travels to Spain, backing the communists against Franco's regime. When Franco wins she reluctantly has little option but to return from Spain in 1939 to Mexico and lives under a pseudonym. Tina Modotti was found dead in the back of a Mexico City taxi cab in January 1942. It was reported that she had had a heart attack.

When Tina Modotti was expelled from Mexico a young photographer by the name of Alvarez Bravo was given her camera - a Graflex - and, whilst not treading directly in her foot steps - continued the brave photography that was the passion behind Tina Modotti's work.

On Photography 
by Tina Modotti
(Mexican Folkways, Vol. 5 No.4, October-December 1929)
Always, when the words "art" and "artistic" are applied to my photographic work, I am disagreeably affected. This is due, surely, to the bad use and abuse made of these terms.I consider myself a photographer, nothing more. If my photographs differ from that which is usually done in this field, it is precisely because I try to produce not art but honest photographs, without distortions or manipulations. The majority of photographers still seek "artistic" effects, imitating other mediums of graphic expression. The result is a hybrid product that does not succeed in giving their work the most valuable characteristic it should have, - photographic quality.
Whether or not photography may or may not be a work of art comparable to other plastic creation has been much discussed in recent years. Naturally, opinions differ. There are those who do accept photography as a medium of expression on a par with any other and there are others who continue to look myopically at the twentieth century with eighteenth century eyes, incapable of accepting the manifestations of our mechanical civilisation. But, for us who use the camera as a tool just as the painter does his brushes, adverse opinions do not matter. We have the approbation of those who recognise the merits of photography in its multiple aspects and accept it as the most eloquent, the most direct means for fixing, for registering the present epoch.
To know whether photography is or is not an art matters little. What is important is to distinguish between good and bad photography. By good is meant that photography which accepts all the limitations inherent in photographic technique and takes advantage of the possibilities and characteristics the medium offers. By bad photography is mean that which is done, one may say, with a kind of inferiority complex, with no appreciation of what photography itself offers: but on the contrary, recurring to all sorts of imitations.
Such work gives the impression that the photographer is almost ashamed of making photographs and tries to hide what there is of photography in his work, superimposing effects and falsifications that can only please those of perverted taste.
Photography, precisely because it can only be produced in the present and because it is based on what exists objectively before the camera, takes its place as the most satisfactory medium for registering objective life in all its aspects, and from this comes its documental value. If to this is added sensibility and understanding and, above all, a clear orientation as to the place it should have in the field of historical development, I believe that the result is something worthy of a place in social production, to which we should all contribute.


  1. An amazing woman. Are you intending to do any images 'in the style of'? On a separate point that photograph of her by Weston is amazing. At first I thought it was some kind of death mask and then it was hard to work out what was her and what wasn't. Having got over the death mask perception I could then see her as a very alive 3D person.

  2. Thanks Catherine. The portrait of her isn't the best from the series he did of her - it's just this was the only one I could download and place in the post. My appreciation of Weston has certainly floundered after reading about Modotti, but maybe that's because she lived a life in the extreme. Weston on the other hand seems insipid by comparison and that feeds how I see his photography now as well. I can't see how I could emulate her - especially with the WeareOCA post on plagiarism:)

    1. I'm sure you'd bring your own inimitable style to it somehow!

  3. The trouble is the more I read the more I realise I don't know about her. I am still researching her and if this was a watercolour portrait, the above would be a very broad brush first wash!