Tina Modotti, born Assunta Adelaide Luigia Modotti Mondini, or Assuntina, which became Tina, immigrated to the United States from Udine, Italy, in 1913, joining her father and sister in San Francisco. There, she established herself as an actress before marrying the artist Roubaix de l’Abrie Richey and moving with him to Los Angeles.
Soon after arriving, Ms. Modotti met Mr. Weston, a successful photographer with whom she had an affair. This did not prevent her husband, a sensitive man, from befriending Mr. Weston and even organizing an exhibition for him in Mexico. So, when Mr. Richey moved to Mexico a few years later, he tried to persuade Ms. Modotti and Mr. Weston to go along.
Before plans were secure, however, Ms. Modotti learned that he was gravely ill. She left for Mexico, but Mr. Richey died as she on the way. She stayed in Mexico for Mr. Weston’s exhibition, finding herself at the heart of a circle of artists like Diego Rivera, who would later change her course.
After her father died that same year, Ms. Modotti traveled back to the United States and persuaded Mr. Weston (who was still married) to move with her to Mexico. The deal was that Ms. Modotti would manage his studio in exchange for photography lessons.
During their first few years in Mexico, Ms. Modotti organised exhibitions for Mr. Weston, widening their circle. Mr. Rivera, who collaborated with Ms. Modotti on his mural work and in the bedroom, further introduced the couple to a world of Communist radicals. Ms. Modotti took to it quickly, while Mr. Weston longed for Los Angeles.
By the time Mr. Weston left Mexico in 1926, Ms. Modotti was deep into her own photographic work, which was growing increasingly political. A still life was not just a still life; now there were political implications. So, too, at times, were political pictures composed as still lifes. In an August-September 1926 issue of Mexican Folkways, Ms. Modotti published a photograph titled “Worker’s Parade,” of a May Day march with rows of peasants in straw hats, “symbols of rural Mexico and agrarian reform,” as the book describes it. Because Ms. Modotti took the photo from above, the hats create a pattern not dissimilar from the petals in her famous “Roses” still life. This, according to Ms. Hooks, “marks the beginning of what was to become the leitmotif of Tina’s photography.”
In 1927, Ms. Modotti joined the Communist Party. Love affairs began with Julio Antonio Mella, a founder of the Cuban Communist Party, and Mr. Rivera’s assistant, Xavier Guerrero. Mr. Guerrero would soon get shipped off to Moscow by the Mexican Communist Party, leaving behind his .45-caliber pistol in the hope it could be sold. Instead, that gun ruined Ms. Modotti’s life.
“Tina Modotti holds the Real Key to Mella’s Murder,” the Excélsior newspaper soon wrote, after Mr. Mella was shot in her company and the pistol found. Worse yet, she was accused of plotting to assassinate the Mexican president and was deported.
Eventually, in Moscow, where she accompanied the Italian Communist Vittorio Vidali during one of Stalin’s five-year plans, Ms. Modotti took up nonphotographic work with the International Red Aid. According to Ms. Hooks, “While she was too devoted to the Party to risk disapproval or expulsion, Tina was too much of an artist to see her work reduced to mere propaganda.” As Ms. Modotti sensed the Soviet attitude that art was for promoting ideology, her photography waned.
After more stays in Paris, Germany and Spain, Ms. Modotti, disguised as Carmen Ruiz Sánchez, a widowed Spanish professor, followed Mr. Vidali to New York as he was hoping to help Spanish exiles there and in Mexico. But she was refused entry and had to continue to Mexico, where several years earlier she had been deported.
Three years later, in 1942, she died mysteriously in the back of a cab. She was 46. The cause of death was heart failure, but many wonder whether she simply knew too much.
It is unclear whether Ms. Modotti, who produced only around 400 photographs, would have continued shooting had she not been distracted by men, political exile and identity changes, or whether her life itself became the overpowering medium.