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Gail JaitlinTina Modotti is perhaps best known as the lover and model of photographer Edward Weston, but she was also an actress, model, and political activist. An accomplished photographer in her own right, Modotti was responsible for a number of striking and well-regarded photographs, although she worked in this field for only 7 of her 43 years. Figuring out exactly who Modotti was, or who she pictured herself to be, is the aim of Patricia Albers's new biography, Shadows, Fire, Snow: The Life of Tina Modotti.
Born in Italy in 1896, Modotti endured a childhood of poverty and displacement. Moving from town to town while her father looked for work, Tina dropped out of school at age 11 to go to work in a silk mill. She finally joined her father in San Francisco when she was 17 he brought over his children and wife one or two at a time, as he could afford to, but her early experiences helped inform her later political sensibilities and her photographs of Mexican workers.
In San Francisco, she worked for a short time as a seamstress before becoming involved with local Italian-language drama troupes. She was a fixture in San Francisco's circle of Italian bohemians and artists and soon became well known as an actress and artist's model. A dark-haired beauty with full lips and smoky eyes, Tina had no difficulty meeting men. Her first true love was Roubaix de l'Abrie Richie Robo, for short, a debonair charmer who dabbled in painting and writing, and with whom she moved to Los Angeles where she had a brief career as a silent film actress and then to Mexico City. Her second love was Edward Weston, the photographer, for whom she modeled in L.A. and with whom she took up residence in Mexico City after Robo's tragic early death from smallpox.
It was not until she was 27 that Modotti started taking photographs, and even then it was in the long, dark shadow of Weston. A well-known photographer by then, Weston was interested in breaking with previous formal tradition and exploring composition and light. He and Modotti set up a studio together, where they took portraits for money while pursuing their more artistic interests.
In the 1920s, Mexico City was an exciting place to be. The revolution had just ended, and a cultural revolution was taking place. The new minister of education was distributing freshly printed volumes of the works of Homer and Tolstoy to the masses; muralists had been hired to paint enormous public paintings of traditional Mexican subjects. As Albers writes, "Intellectuals who had once looked to Europe for cultural revelation now turned their backs upon the old continent, embracing instead the genius of peasants and indigenous peoples.... [Lured by] vibrancy and ferment, anticipating inspiration, and titillated by skirmishes between marauding guerilla bands...foreign pilgrims...board[ed] trains and boats bound for Mexico."
It was against this backdrop that Modotti started her career in photography. At first experimenting only with still lifes especially flowers, Modotti was eventually able to purchase a Graflex camera, which allowed her to dispense with a tripod and take to the streets. Her most vibrant pictures are those of Mexican workers and peasants. It was here that she found her true voice and was able to break away from Weston's influence.
Her political beliefs, which informed so much of her photography, were ultimately to blame for cutting short her professional career and perhaps her life. She became a Communist upon first moving to Mexico, in part because of the political fervor among her social milieu but also as a response to fascism and Mussolini, who she believed was destroying her precious homeland. After her relationship with Weston ended, Modotti became involved with Jose Mella, a Cuban revolutionary who was assassinated as he walked down the street with Modotti. Harassed by officials and suspected of spying, she was eventually deported to Berlin in 1930 and spent a peripatetic decade traveling around Europe as a revolutionary. Although she took some more pictures, she never found another subject that intrigued her as much as the Mexican people; eventually, she gave photography up entirely. When she died in Mexico at the age of 43, it was under mysterious circumstances. She'd been back in the country less than a year.
In this evocative portrait, Patricia Albers does a wonderful job invoking the sights, sounds, and smells of life in the bohemian circle of Mexico City circa 1925, when the very air seemed infused with the excitement and ardor that surrounded activists and artists like Diego Rivera and José Clemente Orozco. But Modotti remains the primary focus of the book, and a fascinating subject she is. To her credit, Albers focuses on Modotti's artistic endeavors as well as on her romantic involvements, which is not an easy task. The artist's romantic life threatened always to overshadow her photography, and the one source of insight into Modotti's mind, her personal journal, was burned, along with many of her letters. Albers's portrait is, then, a welcome introduction to a woman who has remained too long in the shadows.