Shadows, Fire, Snow

Shadows, Fire, Snow: The Life of Tina Modotti takes its title from an elegy written for Modotti by Chilean poet Pablo Neruda. In Modotti’s “firm/and delicate being,” Neruda discerns the “combining” of steel and wire with silence and foam as well as shadows, fire, and snow. Such paradoxical elements—tough and yielding, utilitarian and organic—evoke Modotti’s beguiling complexity, evident in this biography by museum administrator and curator Patricia Albers.

In a mere forty-five years, Modotti lived a number of lives, reinventing herself as an actress, photographer, and Communist Party functionary and undercover agent. With the benefit of previously unpublished letters, Albers doggedly tracks Modotti’s “shape-shifting identity” through various lovers, careers, and aliases, in settings ranging from San Francisco and Los Angeles to Mexico City, Moscow, and Madrid. Photographs reproduced in the book, meanwhile, illustrate Modotti’s evolution from a formalist artist, under the influence of lover Edward Weston, to a radically political one.

Albers does not flinch from Modotti’s vexing contradictions, yet ultimately fails to enter imaginatively into her subject’s life. In fact, Albers’ narrative, which now and then bogs down in overwriting, is at its best when spare and journalistic—as when reporting the assassination of Modotti’s lover, dashing Cuban revolutionary Julio Antonio Mella, and its nightmarish aftermath. Indeed, while Modotti herself eludes this biographer, her milieu—from the high-spirited bohemianism of the 1920’s to the desperate struggle against fascism in the 1930’s—is vividly conveyed. Endnotes are provided, as is an index, which includes such modern art icons and Modotti intimates as Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo.