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Sunday, 11 July 2010

Tina Modotti (1896-1942) and Edward Weston's Nudes

Though best remembered as Edward Weston’s model, Tina Modotti was a fine 20th century photographer and activist who fought on behalf of Mexican peasants in the 1930s. She was a woman who "chose to identify herself with the arts, with the poor, and with the solidarity of the revolution."

By Alexandra Jopp

In Tina Modotti: A Fragile Life, Mildred Constantine describes Modotti as: “Tina Modotti was many things: a gifted photographer, passionate companion of artists and revolutionaries. Fighter for the cause of humanity, "Maria" (her nom de gnerre) who succored the children and wounded in Spain, the tempestuous beauty of unabashed sensuality. Who was she? Dead, she is a legend poeticized and victimized by conjecture, anecdotes and, where fact is lacking, imaginative embellishments.”

Looking for clues in Modotti’s early life, that might have led to her artistic development, the art critics cite her youthful identification with the class struggle. Following her from childhood as a daughter of a Socialist laborer in Italy, to a textile factory in San Francisco, to her youthful romantic marriage to a poet-painter Roubaix de I'Abrie Richey and to her brief career as a silent- film actress in Hollywood where she was typecast as gypsy and harem girl.

TINA ON THE AZOTEA, WITH KIMONO: Edward Weston’s portrait of fellow photographer Tina Modotti

The amount of Italian-born Tina Modotti’s small but exceptional oeuvre was created in Mexico during a six-year stay from 1923 through 1929. She began photographing under the tutelage of her companion, the quintessential modernist photographer Edward Weston (American, 1886-1958.) She met Weston in Los Angeles in 1921, and according to Weston’s biographer, Ben Maddow, she "soon became his pupil, his model, his admirer, and his mistress, all ... more or less at the same time." Maddow described her effect on Weston: "Tina hit Edward like a tempest; she had about her a magnificence and a nobility no one who knew her could ever after- ward forget." She was deeply influenced by his aesthetic sense of form and purity of vision. Under Weston’s guidance, Modotti soon became a skilful photographer. Her photographs from the mid-1920s of doorways, staircases, telephone lines, wine glasses, and flowers, each a carefully controlled study of tone, shape, and pattern, emphasize formal design and echo Weston's style. She gave to everyday objects "an almost exotic prestige."

Glasses, Mexico 1924.
Calla Lilies, 1924.
Telephone Wires, 1925.
Staircases, 1925.
Roses, 1925.
Weston accompanied Modotti to Tepotzoltan and reported in his Daybooks that she was particularly pleased with this interior view of a church tower.  Of her 1924 abstraction of a church tower in Tepotzotlan, Weston commented: "She is very happy over it and well she may be. I myself would be pleased to have done it." The stucco ceiling seems almost Cubist in its abstraction. Modotti accentuated the ambiguity of the space by using the platinum printing process, which registers an exceptionally broad range of gray tones. The subtle gradations of light and hue that result enhance the transcendental quality of the image. Modotti also made a negative print of this exposure to register forms and shapes in greater clarity, suggesting her interest in the abstract composition of the tower interior.

Interior of Church Tower at Tepotzotlán. 
Deeply immersed in Mexico’s cultural and political life from the beginning of her stay, Modotti became even more involved in revolutionary activities after Weston’s departure in 1926, and was, in fact deported from Mexico in 1930 for Communist activity. "I want to capture the dynamic tension in my photographs," says Modotti. "Politics are screaming from the walls." Scenes of Modotti taking pictures have all the tension and passion of a kid with a point-and-shoot. Same goes for the evolution of Modotti's political views.

She returned to Mexico in 1938, and resumed photographic work, only to die four years later from heart attack.


In 1923, Edward Weston embarked upon a new life in Mexico, leaving California behind him. He set up a portrait studio with his muse, lover and apprentice, photographer, Tina Modotti, who introduced him to such artists as Diego Rivera and Jose Clemente Orozco. Simulated by the vital Mexican culture, as well as by his previous contacts with three other great photographers - Sheeler, Stieglitz, and Strand - Weston's soft-focus, painterly style underwent a radical change. "The camera must be used for a recording of life," he wrote in his Daybooks during this period, "for rendering the very substance and quintessence of the thing itself." Weston  was stimulated to work with the nude body, because of the infinite combinations of lines which are present with every move. 


  1. We are wondering if we may have your permission to reprint your Tina Modotti article on our on-line journal.

    http://www.italianamericana. com

    It would be featured on the FILM page

    Italian Americana is a bi-annual cultural and historical review dedicated to the Italian American experience in the New World.

  2. yes. sure, no problem. Many thanks.


  3. In fact, she died in 1942
    P.S. I also love The Beatles
    Warm regards. (: