Of her tumultuous, nomadic life, Tina Modotti spent only eight years in the United States. She was born in Friuli, northern Italy, in 1896, and spent her earliest years in Austria. Her father emigrated to San Francisco, and in 1913 she followed him. She worked as a seamstress, but soon began acting, rising to stardom in the local Italian theater. In 1918, she married a bohemian aspiring artist named Roubaix de l’Abrie (“Robo”) Richey, and they moved to Los Angeles. They had some success in crafts (e.g. batik), and Modotti made some first steps in a film career, appearing most notably in The Tiger’s Coat (1920). But in the same period, she met Edward Weston, and they began an intense relationship, both a love affair and an apprenticeship, which turned her toward the work for which she is now remembered.

Modotti and Richey decided to move to Mexico in 1921. He went ahead, while she lingered in Los Angeles with Weston; as she traveled to join Richey, he came down with smallpox, and died the day after she arrived. She stayed on in Mexico City, and Weston joined her there: they lived and worked together for several productive years. They moved socially among the Mexican avant-garde, blossoming in that period of political awakening rather as it did in Russia; and they made lots of pictures. (She even published a poem, in The Dial.) In 1926, Weston returned to California, and to his family. Over the next few years, Modotti became a convinced Communist. She married the Cuban revolutionary Juan Antonio Mella. He was assassinated in 1929, and in the aftermath, she was deported.

Modotti tried at first to establish herself as a photographer in Berlin, but soon moved to Moscow, where she abandoned photography, and worked for International Red Aid. Her companion in this period was Vittorio Vidali (who may have been Mella’s assassin). They were in Spain through the Civil War, aiding refugees and (it seems) also helping identify Trotskyites. After Franco’s victory, warned against returning to the USSR, she managed to get a visa for Mexico as a Spanish refugee. She lived there again from 1939 until her death, of heart failure, in 1942.

Her career in photography, then, was effectively just nine years long. Even in that time, much of her work was commercial portraiture, or commissioned documentation (of fresco sequences by Rivera and Orozco). And yet she made a remarkable number of classic images in the modern mode — certainly on Weston’s level (as he acknowledged himself).

The hammer and sickle above (it was the cover for the New Masses of October 1928) is striking, but not I think among her best. Her fine clear black-and-white technique brings out the materiality of the three symbolic objects — but considering them materially, it eventually strikes you that if there were a campesino in the hat, he would be either brained or scalped.

This too walks the fine line between material and symbolic, but without the incongruity. We don’t see the worker’s face (indeed portraiture as such was not her strong point), but the dirt ingrained in the skin is no abstraction.

This is the image of hers I saw first, in John Szarkowski’s Looking at Photographs (1973).* The composition is geometrical, refreshingly askew; but the shading is rich and soft — no two polygons filled in alike. The luxurious medium (platinum-palladium paper, which they ordered specially from New York) has something to do with it, and of course the diffusion of light in that particular space; but nobody else’s staircase ever looked like that.

Not sure what to say about this one. I could look at it for a long time.

My source is Patricia Albers’ biography, Shadows, Fire, Snow (Clarkson Potter, 1999). “La Moderna” was the name of the theatrical company with which Modotti made her debut in San Francisco in 1916 — and also of the funeral parlor where her body was put on view in Mexico City, in January 1942.

* Szarkowski deserves a post of his own. A college roommate of mine had this book, and I flipped through it idly — later I found I had practically memorized it, and absorbed its canon of mid-century modernist taste.