“Shadows, Fire, Snow: The Life of Tina Modotti”

A biographer uncovers new material on the Italian-born photographer, actress, revolutionary and spy.

Topics: Books,

In Edward Weston’s photographs of the Italian beauty Tina Modotti, the subject assumes various identities. An early series, circa 1921, is all soft-focus, shadowy romanticism, emphasizing the model’s heavy eyelids and full mouth, with her slender fingers often reaching out to rest on her chin or shoulder. In sharp contrast is a mid-’20s series of nudes shot in bright daylight, with dark shadows slicing across Modotti’s slim form while she suns herself on a patio. At around the same time, Weston made intense close-ups of Modotti’s face that reveal both her sadness and her strength, endowing her with a kind of monumental grace.

These shifts show how Weston evolved as a photographer, but they also demonstrate Modotti’s endless ability to reinvent herself. As Patricia Albers writes in her new biography, “Shadows, Fire, Snow,” Modotti was a “shape-shifter,” a woman who was, at different times, an actress, a photographer, a revolutionary and an international undercover agent. By the time she died, in 1942 at the age of 45, Modotti had packed several lifetimes into one short span. She once jokingly remarked that her profession was men, and given the number and intensity of her romances, perhaps it’s not so surprising that she expired early.

At this point, writing a new biography of Modotti represents a tough brief. “Tina Modotti: Photographer and Revolutionary” by Margaret Hooks was called “definitive” in the New York Times Book Review in 1993, and the same year saw the publication of Mildred Constantine’s “Tina Modotti: A Fragile Life.” Albers herself is in competition with a 1991 Italian biography just published in its first English translation, Pino Cacucci’s more modestly titled “Tina Modotti: A Life.” Granted, she’s a fascinating subject, but does the world need any more biographies of Modotti?

Albers thinks so, and she has a reason: a cache of previously hidden letters and photographs handed over to her by a cousin of Modotti’s first lover, the extravagantly named Roubaix de l’Abrie Richey (Robo to his friends). Following a trail from these letters, Albers does uncover some new information — for example, that Robo and Modotti faked their marriage. While this isn’t exactly stop-the-presses stuff, it does throw light on the ways Modotti stage-managed her image. The book also features some of the lost photographs from the cache, including some early snapshots that make revealing counterpoints to Weston’s beautiful but stagy images.

“I put too much art in my life,” Modotti once wrote to Weston. “Consequently I have not much left to give to art.” Her affair with him and her growth as a photographer make for fascinating reading, but the most dramatic phase of her life began when, in the spring of 1929, she fell in love with the charismatic Cuban revolutionary Julio Antonio Mella. She was at his side later that year when he was brutally assassinated, and shortly thereafter she was plunged into a Kafkaesque nightmare when she was framed for his murder. She never fully recovered, and her later stint as a Communist apparatchik in Moscow led to conspiracy theories about her own death 13 years later.

Albers writes sensitively of Modotti’s grief and of the years in Moscow, where her “temperament and strength of purpose” made her “manifestly gifted for covert work.” Unfortunately, though, a determination to trump all previous accounts of her subject’s life sometimes leads Albers to become bogged down in details. Most readers, for example, will probably feel that they didn’t need to know the name of every single Communist sympathizer who passed through Modotti’s Mexico City apartment in 1927. They might have been better served by more analysis of Modotti’s photographs — her delicate, abstract studies of wilting roses, her portrayals of Mexican peasants and her didactic still lifes of hammers, sickles and bullets.

Still, Albers has provided an authoritative portrait of a complex individual — a portrait that, like a Weston photograph, gives equal weight to shadows and highlights. Her extensive study does justice both to Weston’s images and to the Modotti of Pablo Neruda’s elegy, which tells of a woman for whom “bees, shadows, fire,/snow, silence and foam combining/with steel and wire and/pollen … make up your firm/and delicate being.”

Sarah Coleman is a freelance writer in San Francisco.

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