“I try to produce not art but honest photographs, without distortions or manipulations.”
Tina Modotti’s photographs blend formal rigor with social awareness. The Italian-born artist immigrated to the United States when she was 16. She acted in plays and silent films, and worked as an artist’s model during her first years in the country. In 1920 she met photographer Edward Weston, who mentored her and was a great influence on her subsequent work. By 1921 they had become lovers, and in 1923 they moved together to Mexico City, which had become a cosmopolitan center in the interwar years. There, cultural and political expatriates like Weston and Modotti, Sergei Eisenstein, and Leon Trotsky moved in bohemian circles with Mexican intellectuals and artists such as Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera. Modotti and Weston opened a portrait studio in the city.
With her camera, Modotti captured Mexico’s sights and people. She took its folk art and landscapes as the starting points for her most abstract images. Telephone Wires, Mexico isolates taut stretches of wire against a pale sky, finding gridded linearity in the skyscape. Staircase and Stadium, Mexico City record repetitions of stairs and shadows, creating complex images that push these architectural features toward abstraction.
Modotti’s social concerns emerge in photographs such as Worker’s Hands, a quiet celebration of a laborer’s dignity. Mella’s Typewriter reveals her leftist leanings and carries a subtle social heft. Modotti met Julio Antonio Mella, a Cuban revolutionary who was a hero among other Latin American radicals, in 1928, at a demonstration in Mexico City against the execution of the anarchists Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti. The following year, Mella was assassinated as he walked home with Modotti by his side. Her photograph of his typewriter, his instrument for recording his beliefs, is a symbolic portrait of Mella’s life and work, and an emblem of her own Communist sympathies—which ultimately led to her exile from Mexico in 1930.
Modotti eventually settled in Moscow, where she joined the Soviet Communist Party. She gave up photography completely in 1931 to dedicate herself to political work. When she died in 1942 from congestive heart failure, she left behind a small but intensely influential body of work that reflects her appreciation for the Mexican working class, filtered through the precise formal vocabulary of her photographic practice.
Note: Opening quote is from “On Photography,” Mexican Folkways, vol. 5, no. 4, 1929, reprinted in Robert Miller, Tina Modotti, and Spencer Throckmorton, Tina Modotti : Photographs (New York: Robert Miller Gallery, 1997).
Kelly Sidley, Curatorial Assistant, Department of Photography, 2016