top of page

Tina Modotti, the activist behind the camera

Updated: Feb 27, 2023

The amazing and adventurous life of a model, Hollywood actress, photographer and politician activist.

When I first read her biography I soon fell in love with this amazing woman and her adventurous life that I thought is worth to be told. I am literally shocked (positively, of course) when thinking about all the things that she did, the travels she made, the many loves she had but, most of all, her politician activism as an effort to make changes in a poor society to make it perceive a greater good.

Born Assunta Adelaide Luigia Modotti Mondini on August 16, 1896 in Udine, Italy, Tina Modotti was an Italian photographer known for her skilful use of composition and shadow. She was gifted with a versatile personality with many different skills. In 1913 she moved to San Francisco with her father and began to work as a dressmaker during the day and as an actress with a local company in the evening. Her career as an actress began in 1917 in the San Francisco Italian community’s amateur theatre company. That same year she married the painter and poet Roubaix de l’Abrie Richey and moved to Los Angeles in 1920 where Tina began to play in three Hollywood films and entered the circles of several artists including her future lover, the photographer Edward Weston.

Tina Modotti photographed by Edward Weston, 1921

Tina Modotti photographed by Edward Weston, 1921

Edward Weston, Tina, January 30, 1924, Museum of Modern Art, New York.

Tina Modotti playing the role of Maria de la Guardia in the movie "The Tiger's Coat", Hollywood, 1920. Photo courtesy GALERIE BILDERWELT di Reinhard Schult

Tina Modotti, during the shooting of a Hollywood film, 1920. Photo courtesy GALERIE BILDERWELT di Reinhard Schult

On the death of her husband in early 1922, disappointed by her career as an actress and encouraged by Weston, she decided to engage in photography. She agreed to run Weston's studio free of charge in return for his mentoring her in photography.

However, her career as a photographer began in 1923, when she moved with Weston to Mexico City where they opened a portrait studio. Modotti and Weston quickly gravitated toward the capital's bohemian scene and used their connections to create an expanding portrait business. Together they found a community of cultural and political "avant-gardists", which included Frida Kahlo, Lupe Marín, Diego Rivera, and Jean Charlot.

Her most famous images captured the milieu of Mexico City between World War I and World War II, including portraits of artists and intellectuals such as Frida Kahlo and her husband Diego Rivera.

Portrait of Tina Modotti in Weston's house in Glendale, California, 1922

Tina Modotti e Edward Weston in Mexico, 1924. Photo courtesy GALERIE BILDERWELT di Reinhard Schult.

Tina Modotti and Frida Kahlo, Mexico, 1928. Photo courtesy GALERIE BILDERWELT di Reinhard Schult.

In general, Weston was moved by the landscape and folk art of Mexico to create abstract works, while Tina Modotti was more captivated by the people of Mexico and blended this human interest with a modernist aesthetic, all the while shunning the term 'artist', insisting she merely wanted to "capture social realities".

Tina Modotti, Girls in Shawls, 1924

Tina Modotti, Roses, 1924

Tina Modotti, Calle, Messico,1925

Tina Modotti, Tehuantepec Type, 1929

Tina Modotti, Workers Parade, 1926

Modotti also became the photographer of choice for the blossoming Mexican mural movement, documenting the works of José Clemente Orozco and Diego Rivera.

Between 1924 and 1928, Modotti took hundreds of photographs of Rivera's murals at the Secretariat of Public Education in Mexico City. Tina's visual vocabulary matured during this period, such as her formal experiments with architectural interiors, blooming flowers, urban landscapes, and especially in her many beautiful images of peasants and workers during the depression.

Tina Modotti, The Fecund Earth, Diego Rivera Murals, Chapingo, Mexico

Tina Modotti, Study of a Diego Rivera mural at the Ministry of Education, Mexico City

Tina Modotti, Fresco in the Agricultural School by Diego Rivera, Chapingo

Tina Modotti, Diego Rivera Mural details of "Festival in Jalisco”

Tina Modotti Allegory of A Revolution, “The Trench” by Jose Clemente Orozco, at San Ildefonso College courtyard Mexico City 1926-27

Tina Modotti Diego Rivera Murals “Capilla Riveriana” Universidad Autonoma de Chapingo 1924-1927

Tina Modotti Diego Rivera Murals “Capilla Riveriana” Universidad Autonoma de Chapingo 1924-1927

Tina Modotti Diego Rivera Mural “The Sugar Mill” Secretariat of Public Education (SEP), Mexico City 1923

Tina Modotti Diego Rivera Mural “The Foundry” Secretariat of Public Education (SEP), Mexico City 1923

Tina Modotti Diego Rivera Mural, detail of “The Protest” Secretariat of Public Education (SEP), Mexico City 1923

In 1926, Modotti and Weston were commissioned by Anita Brenner to travel around Mexico and take photographs for what would become her influential book Idols Behind Altars.

"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.”

Her politician motivation and devotion began in 1927 when she joined the Mexican Communist Party becoming more politically active focusing her work on that. That same year she made the photograph Mexican Sombrero with Hammer and Sickle, symbols of the Mexican peasantry and communist ideology. Her photographs began appearing in publications such as Mexican Folkways, Forma, and the more radically motivated El Machete, the German Communist Party's Arbeiter-Illustrierte-Zeitung (AIZ), and New Masses. Tina Modotti's career as a photographer can be divided into two distinct categories: "Romantic" and "Revolutionary", with the former period including her time spent as Weston's darkroom assistant, office manager and then creative partner. Her later works were the focus of her one-woman retrospective exhibition at the National Library in December 1929, which was advertised as "The First Revolutionary Photographic Exhibition In Mexico".

The pinnacle of her career came in 1929, when an exhibition in the Mexican capital celebrated her as the greatest revolutionary photographer.

Tina Modotti, Mexican sombrero with hammer and sickle, 1927

Tina Modotti “Sickle, Bandolier & Guitar” ca. 1927

Tina Modotti, Tank No. 1, 1927

Tina Modotti, Woman with Olla Mexico, 1927

Tina Modotti, The Typewriter of Julio Antonio Mella Mexico City, 1928

Tina Modotti, Cloth Folds, 1924

Tina Modotti, Telephone Wires, 1925

Tina Modotti, Untitled, 1926

Construction workers in the stadium, Mexico, 1927

Tina Modotti, La Palanca, Mexico City, 1927

Tina Modotti, Hands Resting on Tool, 1927

Tina Modotti, Stadium, Mexico City, 1927

Tina Modotti, Woman with flag, 1928

Tina Modotti, Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera at the May 1st demonstration, Mexico, 1928

Tina Modotti, Peasant Reading El Machete, 1927

Tina Modotti, Girl carrying water, 1927

Tina Modotti, Cactus Flower, 1926

Tina Modotti, Mother and Child, Tehuantepec, Oaxaca, Mexico, 1929

Tina Modotti, "Bandolier, Corn, Sickle", 1927

Tina Modotti, Hands of Marionette Player, 1929

As a result of the anti-communist campaign by the Mexican government, she was expelled from Mexico in 1930 and she had to take refuge in Europe. She first spent several months in Berlin, followed by several years in Moscow working as a Soviet agent. Traveling on a restricted visa that mandated her final destination as Italy, Modotti initially stopped in Berlin and from there visited Switzerland. The Italian government made concerted efforts to extradite her as a subversive national, but with the assistance of International Red Aid activists, she evaded detention by the fascist police. She apparently intended to make her way into Italy to join the anti-fascist resistance there. In response to the deteriorating political situation in Germany and her own exhausted resources, however, she moved to Moscow in 1931. That same year Tina decided to no longer photograph.

During the next few years she engaged in various missions on behalf of the Workers International Relief organisations as a Comintern agent in Europe together with Vittorio Vidali (a.k.a. Comandante Carlos) an Italian communist with whom she had an affair. When the Spanish Civil War erupted in 1936, Vittorio and Tina left Moscow for Spain, where they stayed and worked until 1939 when she left following the collapse of the Republican movement in Spain.

She died in 1942 at the age of 45 under suspicious circumstance. Her life unveils the strict connection between her social commitment and her photographic art, which left an indelible mark on the history of photography. Tina Modotti was not only an extraordinary witness to the human and social condition of the poorest of Mexicans. But she was a champion of their rights, the champion of the people.

During her short life, Tina managed to do everything. And she learned everything. Certainly her beauty was combined with such an intelligence, a courage and a hunger to understand that very few people have.



bottom of page