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Tina Modotti was an Italian photographer who emigrated to the United States in 1913 at the age of 16. She was drawn to the performing arts at first and experimented with acting.  She appeared in plays, operas, and silent films throughout the 1910s and 1920s. As she worked and built her career and relationships, she became friends with many including the photographer, Edward Weston.

Modotti had been around photography for much of her life.  In Italy, her uncle ran a photography studio.  In the U.S., her father also ran a photo studio in San Francisco.  After meeting Weston, she found herself immersed into photography again.  She studied under Weston, as well as served as his model for many images.  The two also formed a personal relationship with Weston having an affair.

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.

After the loss of her fiancé´and father, Modotti shifted her career.  She became Weston’s studio manager (building on her family experience).  She and Weston, along with his son Chandler left for Mexico City (leaving behind Weston’s wife and remaining three children).

While in Mexico, Modotti was drawn to the people and culture.  She found herself working with political “avant-gardists” and began to also capture the Mexican mural movement. She also began to focus on architectural interiors, flowers, urban landscapes, and the working class. She and Weston also continued to run a successful studio and built their portrait studio up in the city.

At the age of 30, she started to become politically active in the Mexican Communist Party.  Her photographs began to be used in publications for these affiliated groups. She also became a suspect in two assassinations, the first for a colleague and the second for Mexican President Pascual Ortiz Rubio.  This was field by an anti-immigrant press campaign that saw her as an easy target.  Two different men were eventually arrested for the crimes.

Still, Modotti found herself expelled from Mexico in 1930 and a political prisoner.  She was sent to Italy, but along the way managed to escape and moved on to Moscow.  After 1931 her photography is believed to have stopped.  Her career switched fully to activism and she worked with groups like the International Workers’ Relief organizations and the Comintern in Europe.

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.

Her life ended in 1942, at the age of only 45.  She died from heart failure in Mexico City (which she had managed to return to under a pseudonym).

Truly a life with many turns, and a photographic career of historical significance.


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About Richard Harrington

Richard Harrington is the founder of RHED Pixel, a visual communications company based in Washington, D.C. He is the Publisher of Photofocus and Creative Cloud User as well as an author on Lynda.com. Rich has authored several books including From Still to Motion, Understanding Photoshop, Professional Web Video, and Creating DSLR Video.

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A Photographer You Should Know

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