tina modotti lying on the azotea, 1923
tina modotti, the white iris, 1921
tina el buen retiro, tacubaya, 1923
tina modotti, 1921
tina at glendale (girl in canton chair), 1922
tina with arms raised, ca. 1921
tina modotti, nude, 1924
tina modotti reciting poetry, 1924
tina on the azotea with kimono, 1923
tina modotti & edward weston, "anniversary", mexico, 1924, unknown photographer
robo de richey, photographed by edward weston, ca. 1920
all photographs by edward weston unless otherwise noted.
noone is sure when edward weston met tina modotti but it was sometime after 1917. modotti & her husband, activist & artist roubaix de l'abrie richey (known as robo) moved to hollywood, then still in it's infancy, in 1918. by april 1921, modotti & weston had embarked on a passionate affair. she was young, beautiful & intelligent & became weston's favorite muse & model. he was an established local photographer in his late 30s, married to flora chandler, with children & already involved with margrethe mather.
in 1922 modotti's husband robo announced plans to move to mexico, asking modotti to join him. modotti agreed, but delayed her trip & by the time she arrived in mexico, robo had contracted smallpox. a few days later, on february 1922, he died, aged 31. after his funeral modotti returned to america but, with little to hold her there, returned to her original plan to settle in mexico city. in 1923 she set off again - this time with weston (who had left his wife & children behind) in tow.
the plan was to open a portrait studio with modotti, who spoke spanish, running the business, while weston would, in return, teach her photography. mexico was a period of experimentation for them both; he moved away from the dreamy, pictorialist portraits & focused on evocative nudes (mostly of modotti) & still lifes. modotti focused on soft, textured still lifes. she introduced him to major mexican artists including diego rivera (whom she went on to have an affair with) & josé clemente orozco.
by the mid 20s their idyll began to sour. both had affairs & their approach to photograph had diverged as well. modotti moved away from romantic pictures towards a more political documentation of social change. instead of still lifes & flowers she photographed stoic laborers struggling under heavy loads & calloused workers' hands. weston flourished into a fully modern artist.
in 1926 weston returned to california effectively ending their love affair. modotti joined the communist party in 1927 & in 1929 she was implicated in the murder of her lover, the cuban revolutionary & communist writer julio antonio mella. by 1930 she was deported from mexico & ceased making photographs. over the next decade she drifted between berlin, moscow & paris. in 1939, after the fall of madrid, she boarded a ship to new york, where - in a happy twist of fate - officials, unconvinced by her fake documentation, put her on a ship bound for mexico.
in january 1942 on her way home from a dinner party at pablo neruda's house, she suffered a massive heart attack in the back of a taxi. she was 45. suspicions of assassination lingered for years but the coroner ruled her death as "natural causes".
upon hearing of modotti's death, weston wrote the following in his journal:
this morning i received post from mexico informing me of the death of tina modotti. i had been dreaming of tina and those heady days back in mexico throughout the night, and awoke bolt upright at the crack of dawn. forgoing my morning oblations, i headed straight for the cellar, where the negatives from those years had been lying dormant since my return from mexico. ironically, i had been printing a portrait of robo when the postman rang. it was a shot i remembered as soon as i saw the negative in its sleeve. i could picture clearly in my mind everything surrounding the taking of that photograph: the smell of robo's hair tonic commingling with the daffodils tina had purchased from a local florist, and which robo had been busy painting the entire morning. i remembered robo's protest when i suggested he clean himself up a bit before i photographed him, and the look tina shot in my direction as i peered into the glass. there we were, robo and i, connected all too intimately in the brief moment of the shutter's release. and there was tina, the objective observer, watching her husband's soul be stolen by her lover.
so you can imagine the eerie feeling i had when i received the news. sure enough, robo's ghost had returned to haunt me. the tables had been turned: the first time we had been in mexico, tina and i, hearing the news of robo's death in california, and now here we were, myself and robo's likeness in california, receiving news of tina's death in mexico. the cruel symmetry of fate. there was nothing i could do but return to the darkroom and watch the images of those days materialize under the ripples of developer, pose by pose, frame by frame, and summon tina from them like a necromancer.
tina is wearing a translucent silk blouse that is heavily embroidered over the breast. her hair is pulled straight back and shiny. she sits on the steps of the hacienda, where the late afternoon sun is shining. there are trees directly outside the window, from which the sun is entering. they act like a negative, the handiwork of the supreme photographer, subduing the light, filtering part of it, redirecting the rest onto the light sensitive paper that is tina. on the ground glass she seems to glow.
tina is reciting poetry. she believes that, being an artist, i appreciate the arts in general, and being a romantic, that i enjoy poetry in particular. she is mistaken tina is driven by impulse and i am old and weary and all too happy to escape into her naivete. she recites a poem in italian about her two lovers, one a strident revolutionary she met on her travels in the countryside, and the other a married man with three children living in sin with a foreign woman in a foreign country. and that is the beauty of it. the poetry of her honesty. yet, it is still such a crushing blow.
i photograph what i cannot possess. i inscribe in silver what eludes me in reality. tina is sunbathing on the azotea of the hacienda. i have been writing correspondences to the art world in the united states, to reming them that i am still alive and photographing. i take leave of my study for a breath of fresh air, and steal upon tina sunbathing on the worn stone tiles. i quickly head back for the graflex, quietly set the tripod in place, align the camera to the most advantageous position, all with interrupting the silence of tina's repose.
there she is, hand covering her eyes from the sun, her dark brown nipples standing erect, nearly matching the hue of the blanket beneath her. i peer through my glass. my hand reaches for the cable release. tina is angelic, an angel drifting in the realm of angels. ecstatically, i squeeze the release.
"are you finished now," tina says.
"you pretender. i thought you were asleep," i say.
"i was, until you came along with all your racket. did you really think i could still be asleep?"
"come now, i wasn't as bad as all that."
she sits up, still covering her eyes. her breasts fall like fruit onto her belly. "do you want to take anymore? how should i sit?"
"what's the point now?" i say, trying to outdo her. "you've ruined the mood. i think i'll even have the destroy the negative."
"you must be mad. why?"
"it would be dishonest not to."
"nobody will ever know the difference," she says as she leans back onto her elbows, supine and seductive.
"no, i suppose they never will."
tina is a conundrum, but she is never cunning. she is always tina. no matter that she offers a different self for every photographic plate i load into the camera, she remains herself. i can see so clearly now, with the passage of time, that it is i who saw her differently.
here is tina in the flower of her youth. she is dressed in black, surrounded by a black background, her profile emerging from the darkness. her hair is off her face. having just been released from a pin that held it back in place, it hangs precariously over her shoulders, on the verge of submitting to nature. her eyes are fixed on something far away and contain a sadness that seems beyond her years. she is twenty five years old. i am forty one. she and robo have been together for six years, and married for four. in this photograph i have captured something too private and true and yet she is little more than a stranger to me. i immediately fall in love with her. (the white iris, 1921)