A young girl wearing a frilly, lacy dress has just stepped through a churchyard gate bound for her first communion. She’s also wearing a grinning death head mask. “First Communion, Chalma, State of Mexico,” by Graciela Iturbide, is a complex picture in which pre-Hispanic ritual and Catholic rite are interwoven. The geometric patterns of the cobblestone courtyard and the brick-arched gate in the foreground contrast with the chaos of the natural landscape. Tree branches and electrical wires dangle into the frame from above; the wild sweep of the forested mountains echoes the undulations of the courtyard wall. The photo is an individual portrait within a social context: The girl’s family and friends trail behind, smiling and laughing. Several adults carry small children on their backs, piggyback-style; others hold babies in their arms. The picture is funny; it’s spooky and unsettling–a naturalistic, theatrical landscape portrait that’s also poetic, mythological photojournalism.
One of the greatest contemporary Mexican photographers, Iturbide is also recognized internationally. Her black-and-white photographs are in collections around the world, and documentary photographer Mary Ellen Mark calls Iturbide one of her favorite photographers. Graciela Iturbide: Images of the Spirit, a retrospective of her first three decades of work, shows why.
Iturbide’s fluid aesthetic can be traced to a century of photographic heritage. Tina Modotti (an Italian-American expatriate who did her best photography while living in Mexico) learned photography from Edward Weston, a master modernist and Modotti’s lover. In the 1920s, she made high-society portraits, shot landscapes and architecture, and did gritty reportage for the Communist press, moving beyond the limitations of Weston’s pure modernism. She was also a friend and mentor to Manuel Alvarez Bravo, a young man from Oaxaca who became not only the dean of Mexican photography, but one of the greatest photographers in the world. Alvarez Bravo’s work defies categorization: He’s a surreal social realist and a poet reporter. He was also Iturbide’s first photography instructor, and, at 99, remains a friend.
Like Modotti and Alvarez Bravo, Iturbide is a chameleon. Some of her pictures are reminiscent of other great photographers of the last half-century. Her eye for the iconography of the Mexican social milieu recalls Robert Frank’s The Americans; her documentary street dramas recall Gary Winogrand, while her grotesque, masked subjects and dreamy tableaux evoke Eugene Meatyard’s surreal suburban fantasies. Amazingly, Iturbide is able to blend these styles into a cohesive body of work that is unmistakably her own. And, like Modotti and Alvarez Bravo, she creates something that is essentially Mexican.
Graciela Iturbide was born in 1942, the first of thirteen children in a well-to-do, conservative Mexico City family. In 1969, already married and the mother of three, she entered the film school of the National Autonomous University of Mexico, intending to become a filmmaker. She signed up for a class in still photography that was taught by Manuel Alvarez Bravo. Since the other film students didn’t want to waste their time with stills when they were learning to make movies, Iturbide was the only student in the class. She fell in love with photography, and Alvarez Bravo was impressed with her work. He took her on as his photographic assistant and she worked with him from 1970 to 1971.
Iturbide has often said that Alvarez Bravo was more of a teacher of life than a teacher of photography, but for Alvarez Bravo, they are one and the same. After 18 months as his assistant, Iturbide realized that she needed to work independently to develop her own way of seeing. Alvarez Bravo’s photographs are designed to stand alone as individual works of art; in contrast, Iturbide wanted to make photo essays. She traveled to Europe and met Henri Cartier Bresson, whose aesthetic of “spontaneous” graphic perfection is clearly another influence in her work.
Throughout the 1970s, 80s, and 90s, she focused most of her attention on Mexico. “I take pictures to get to know my country better,” she explains. Judging by her body of work, she has an expansive, multiple vision of what exactly her country is. She has made pictures of rural religious festivals and urban bar life, of indigenous communities in the Sonora Desert and cholos in the barrios of East Los Angeles. The question “What does it mean to be Mexican?” has some intriguing answers. In one picture from East L.A., a group of women in Kabuki-style make up and frosted hair demonstrate gang signals while standing in front of a mural honoring the heroes of the Mexican revolution. The women told Iturbide that they thought the men in the painting were mariachis.
With few exceptions (the cholo photographs were made for a One Day in the Life of America project), Iturbide is noted for investing a lot of time in her projects. For her, photography is an act of complicity with her subjects, not an act of aggression. To photograph the people of Juchitán, a town in Oaxaca, where Zapotec culture is especially vibrant, she spent six years researching and reading, living with the juchitecos, getting to know their ways of life, and slowly, slowly, photographing them. Her patience was rewarded with access to some of the most intimate moments of their lives–lives that differ dramatically from her own.
Iturbide comes from a bourgeois family and a sheltered urban background. But the time she spends with her subjects allows her to make an outsider’s observations from an insider’s vantage point. This back-stage world seems mystical and marvelous to the viewer, but the theatricality, art, and artifice we see are just a normal part of her subjects’ everyday routine.
In one of Iturbide’s most famous pictures, “Angel woman, Sonora Desert, 1979,” a Seri Indian in traditional clothing walks like a figure from pre-history through a tortured, arid landscape that looks unchanged since before time began. In her right hand she holds a boom box. The power of the photograph lies in the nonchalance of the screaming contradiction.
In several images, the act of looking is part of the picture. Faces are framed and veiled, and subjects stand for formal portraits in unlikely locations. In “Fifteen, Juchitán, 1986,” the Quinceañera stands forth in her elaborate gown, boldly meeting the gaze of the camera. The paint on the walls of the room is peeling badly. An old woman sits idly by, staring off-stage, as if at nothing. In the background, a young boy peers in through a barred window, his face awash in the harsh light of day.
The pictures are also visually complex. In “Hand play, Juchitán, Oaxaca, 1988,” for example, a young girl stands in the center of the frame. She’s holding her hands up to her face, her fingers tipped with long, translucent “nails” that glow in the light. Two other pairs of hands reach in from either side of the frame. The picture is a wealth of shapes, textures and tones: the girl’s lustrous hair and cable-knit sweater, six wrinkled hands, bundles of bamboo.
“Fish from Oaxaca, Oaxaca, 1992” shows a hand reaching into a display of fish in a market stall. The fish on the left and the bottom are all facing to the right; on the upper right, they’re facing left, as if the fish were facing themselves in a mirror. Their fins and scales and kissing mouths are like tiles in an abstract mosaic. To accomplish all this, Iturbide works in many different modes. Within a single series of images there will be straight street photography, classical, formal portraits, and stylized, self-conscious art. Sometimes a single photograph feels like it’s working simultaneously in several modes.
There is a sense of an unfolding mystery in these pictures, of some deep magic at work. Cemeteries are shrouded in mist and beset by locusts. Goats are herded and led to slaughter. The iconography is simultaneously Biblical and pre-Hispanic. The fact that so many different civilizations existed before the arrival of Europeans, and that their signs and symbols persist to this day, intermingled with baroque colonial icons, complicates the notion of the Western Hemisphere as the New World. The collision of these worlds gives Iturbide’s photographs a dreamy feeling. In “Keeper of the Roads, Guerrero State, 1995,” an old man dressed in white sits in a heavy wooden throne in the middle of a mountain path. The trail winds up the hill behind him, through flowering bushes into a rugged landscape of cliffs and arroyos. The chair’s armrests are carved with roaring jaguars; the old man is wearing what appear to be either Keds or Chuck Taylor All-Star high-top sneakers.
Iturbide has said that she sees photography as a process of understanding, or learning how to see the world. The world that she shares with us in Images of the Spirit is a world of contradictions. Her Mexico is modern and traditional, Spanish and indigenous, conservative and chaotic. Landscape photographer Robert Adams has said that the best photographers try to show the past, present, and future all in the same picture: “You want ghosts, and the daily news, and prophecy.” Iturbide’s beautiful, haunting pictures swirl between time and among worlds. For the past few years she’s been working on a project in India and shooting landscapes in the United States. She’s been to Florida, Louisiana, Tennessee, and Mississippi. Texas and Montana are next on the list. I can’t wait to see the ghosts and prophecies she unveils.
Jake Miller has photographed Brazilian churches and New York subways, looking for ghosts, daily news and prophecy.