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Tina Modotti (1896 – 1942) was born Assunta Adelaide Luigia Modotti Mondini in Udine, Italy. She was a photographer, model, silent film actress, and leftist who once playfully described her profession as "men." She acted in several silent movies in the early 1920s and later became a model for prominent photographers and artists of the time. By 1926, Modotti was an accomplished photographer in her own right, often publishing her work in left wing and Communist papers.
Modotti immigrated to the United States in 1913 and settled in San Francisco. In 1918, she married Roubaix "Robo" de l'Abrie Richey and moved with him to Los Angeles in order to pursue a career in the motion picture industry. There she met the photographer Edward Weston and his assistant Margrethe Mather. By 1921, Modotti was Weston's favorite model and, by October of that year, his lover. Modotti's husband Robo seems to have responded to this by moving to Mexico in 1921. Following him to Mexico City, Modotti arrived two days after his death from smallpox on February 9, 1922. In 1923, Modotti returned to Mexico City with Weston and one of his four sons, leaving behind Weston's wife and remaining children.
Modotti and Weston quickly gravitated toward the capital's bohemian scene, and used their connections to create an expanding portrait business. It was also during this time that Modotti met several political radicals and Communists, including three Mexican Communist Party officials who would all eventually become romantically linked with Modotti: Xavier Guerrero, Julio Antonio Mella, and Vittorio Vidali.
By 1927, a much more politically active Modotti (she joined the Mexican Communist Party that year) found her focus shifting and more of her work becoming politically motivated. Around that period, her photographs began appearing in publications such as "Mexican Folkways", "Forma" and the more radically motivated "El Machete".
Modotti is thought to have been introduced to photography as a young girl in Italy, where her uncle, Pietro Modotti, maintained a photography studio. Years later in the U.S., her father opened a similar studio in San Francisco, where her interest undoubtedly developed further. However, it was her relationship with Edward Weston that was to allow her to gravitate upward to become a world class photographer. Mexican photographer Manuel Alvarez Bravo divided Modotti’s career as a photographer into two distinct categories: "Romantic" and "Revolutionary." The former period includes her time spent as Weston’s darkroom assistant, office manager and, finally, creative partner. Together they opened a portrait studio in Mexico City and were commissioned to travel around Mexico taking photographs for Anita Bremmer’s book, "Idols Behind Altars." During this time she also became the photographer of choice for the blossoming Mexican mural movement, documenting the works of José Clemente Orozco and Diego Rivera. Many of her pictures of flowers originate from that time.
By December 1929, an exhibition of Tina Modotti’s work was billed as "The First Revolutionary Photographic Exhibition In Mexico." She had reached the zenith of her career as a photographer. Within a year she was to put her camera aside when she was deported from Mexico and, with only a few exceptions, was not to pick it up again in the dozen years that remained to her.
Exiled from her adopted home in Mexico, Modotti moved around Europe for a while, finally settling in Moscow where, by most accounts, she joined a branch of the Soviet secret police. During the next few years she engaged in various secretive missions of the behalf of the Russians (though probably for "World Revolution" in her mind) in France and Eastern Europe. When the Spanish Civil War erupted in 1936, Vidali (then known as "Comandante Carlos") and Modotti (using the pseudonym "Maria") left Moscow for Spain, where they stayed and worked until 1939. She worked with the famed Canadian Dr. Norman Bethune (who would later invent the mobile blood unit) during the disastrous retreat from Málaga in 1937. In April 1939, following the collapse of the Republican movement in Spain, Modotti left Spain with Vidali and returned to Mexico under a pseudonym.
Modotti died in Mexico City in 1942 under what was viewed by some as suspicious circumstances. After hearing about her death, Diego Rivera suggested that Vidali had orchestrated it. Modotti may have 'known too much' about Vidali's activities in Spain, which included a rumoured 400 executions. Her grave is located within the vast Panteón de Dolores in Mexico City.
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