Book Review: Tina Modotti: Photographer and Revolutionary

Hooks, Margaret. Tina Modotti: Photographer and Revolutionary 1993. Pandora, HarperCollins Publications, London UK

Review by Theresa Wolfwood

Tina Modotti came from a poor family in Italy to the USA: her beauty and strong character lead her into a modelling and acting career. She became a model, mistress and assistant of USA photographer, Edward Weston. Together they went to Mexico; she fell in love with that country and stayed after he went home and became an amazing photographer in her own right – first with photos of flowers but soon her political convictions moved her to social documentary photography.

Cover Image
Cover photo of Tina by Edward Weston


She was a friend and colleague to many of the art and left community in Mexico from Frida Kahlo to the famous male muralists. She posed for her lover Diego Rivera and her image can be found in his murals “the Abundant Earth“, “the Enslaved“, “Germination” and “Virgin Earth” and “In the Arsenal“, at the Secretaría de Educación Pública Building, Mexico City, 1928. Later she was commissioned by several muralists to take documentary photos of the works.

Another one of her many lovers, Julio Antonio Mella, exiled Cuban revolutionary, was assassinated as they walked in Mexico City; he died in her arms. Although she knew the famous and notorious, she never forgot her family and friends; she was a loyal and loving person. Her home was open to exiles and the needy. Although politically very committed, it is her compassion that comes through as a driving force in her life. For many years she fund-raised and helped refugees from fascist Italy.

One of Tina’s photos of a Mexican woman

Her work as a photographer (a total of only 400 photographs) is now being recognized for its own value and she has emerged to be considered independently from her teacher, Edward Weston. . The largest exhibition of her work opened at Kunst Haus Wien in Vienna on June 30, 2010. It presents 250 photos, many never shown before. The exhibition is based on the collections of Galerie Bilderwelt, Berlin and Spencer Throckmorton, NYC, curated by Reinhard Schultz. (Information about exhibitions from online Wikipedia.)

When Mexico’s political climate changed she was exiled to Europe. The Italian government agents attempted to capture her in Holland but she was helped to safety, first in Germany, then Russia. From there she went to the Spanish Civil War as an aid and medical worker where she met Norman Bethune.

Many adventures and dangerous assignments later, she returned to Mexico and died in a taxi of heart failure in 1942. Her tombstone in the Panteón de Dolores in Mexico City has a lovely relief portrait of Modotti by engraver Leopoldo Méndez. Her friend, Pablo Neruda, wrote a poem for her funeral, part of which is on also on her tombstone:

Pure your gentle name, pure your fragile life,
bees, shadows, fire, snow, silence and foam,
combined with steel and wire and pollen
to make up your firm and delicate being.