by Carole Glauber
Modotti's life has all the components of a good story: love, betrayal, sex, passion,
violence and adversity, foreign intrigue, and unsolved mysteries. Fortunately,
the past 17 years have seen much scholarly activity concerning her life and work.
Interest in Modotti has mushroomed, and at last she is receiving recognition as
a photographer on her own terms rather than as Edward Weston's companion. Mildred
Constantine first attempted Modotti's biography in 1983 with the ironic title
Tina Modotti: A Fragile Life whose cover depicts Tina as vulnerable and
soulful. Tina Modotti Photographer and Revolutionary by Margaret Hooks
was called "definitive" in the 1993 New York Times Book Review.
in 1896 in Udine, a town in Northeast Italy, Modotti became all too familiar with
poverty and the resulting social unrest fueled by joblessness and hunger. When
Tina was nine, her father, Giuseppe, left his family for San Francisco. Slowly,
he sent money to Italy, allowing the children passage to America one by one and
in 1913, Tina joined her father. Her stints in a shirt factory, as an I.Magnin
seamstress, and a hatmaker provided income. During the summer of 1916, Tina made
her acting debut in a North Beach Italian theater, captivating audiences and becoming
a local theater star.
In 1917, she met Roubaix de l'Abrie Richey in San Francisco. Richey, known as
Robo, worked as a painter and writer, immersed in the Bohemian life, although
born in Pleasant Valley, Oregon to a prosperous farm family. They paired up, despite
Robo's marriage, and invented a relationship believed by others to include their
marriage. It turned out that Robo and Tina never married despite previous accounts
assuming they were.
and Tina moved to Los Angeles where Tina acted in silent films. She met the charismatic
photographer Edward Weston and became his model and lover. Robo decided to go
to Mexico in 1922, and Tina soon followed. Albers documented Modotti's rail trip
to Mexico City where Robo languished in a hospital while dying of smallpox and
sheds new light on this event. By careful sleuthing, she found letters, photographs,
papers, and mementos in two trunks stored for years in the Roseberg, Oregon attic
of Ruth and LaBrie Ritchie, Robo's first cousin once removed. Previous Modotti
biographers described Modotti receiving the news of Robo's death while on the
train, whereas, according to Albers' information, Robo died shortly after Tina's
was smitten with Mexico, decided to stay, and Weston soon joined her. She made
her earliest photographs in 1923 - at first still lifes, then portraits, or portions
of her stairwell, a circus tent or patterns of wires across the sky. Her strong
photographs of Mexican peasants and workers reflected her memories of childhood
poverty, but as she became involved in Communism, her photographs often evolved
into various arrangements portraying a hammer and sickle or Red Aid rallies. By
1931, she had stopped photographing, having created 160 images compared to Westons's
750 during his Mexican sojurn. But Modotti was a novice to Weston's years of experience
and much of her time went to supporting his work or the commercial photography
they did to provide income.
she nor Weston felt any compunction to remain faithful to one another; both had
numerous affairs. They surrounded themselves with the Bohemian elite and immersed
themselves in the artistic life of Mexico City. Modotti's political beliefs eventually
superceded photography in importance. Her lovers and friendships shifted from
artists to revolutionaries, especially the Cuban anarchist Julio Antonio Mella,
the staunch Communist operative, Xavier Guerrero, and the ruthless Vittorio Vidali.
work on behalf of the Communist party consumed her life, leading to her deportation
from Mexico, years in Stalinist Russia working for Red Aid, and then anti-fascist
activities in Spain during its Civil War where she witnessed its horrors. She
returned to Mexico City with a false passport, thereby avoiding almost certain
liquidation in Russia. With her health and spirit broken, she lived under the
pseudonyms Carmen and Maria. Modotti's death in a taxicab in 1942 remains somewhat
mysterious. Although confirmed as a heart attack, one cannot dismiss the possibility
of Vidali's involvement.
sometimes inserts assumptions about Modotti's reactions or appearances that can
weaken the narrative. However, her attentive research details important insights
into the bittersweet intensity of Modotti's life and work. Certainly Modotti's
life was not a fragile one, but that of a talented, tough, and shrewd woman as
evident by her work as a Communist secret agent and her involvement with Communist
attrocities and anarchists. Tina's acting skills no doubt became useful while
living and traveling under aliases and surviving accusations by the Mexico City
police and media of instigating murder.
photographs endure as a testament to her sensitivity to the Mexican people and
their environment. Unfortunately, the book has only 17 reproductions of her work.
More examples would enhance the narrative, particularly in a biography about someone
known as a photographer. Snapshots by others do furnish valuable information about
her activities. Overall, Albers has presented us with a fascinating account of
an enigmatic person who inspired the Chilean poet Pablo Neruda to write, "bees,
shadows, fire,/snow, silence and foam combining/with steel and wire and/pollen
to make up your firm/and delicate being."