Born in Mexico City in 1942 as the eldest of thirteen children and with traditional Roman Catholic parents, it would be safe to say that photography wasn’t a path that was set out before Graciela Iturbide. But that is where she ended up, and she is now considered one of the greatest contemporary photographers of both Mexico and all of Latin America.
The revolution of 1910-20 in Mexico caused a period of artistic freedom and many female artists at the time took advantage, taking their cameras into the world, letting their voices be heard, and leading the way for artists such as Iturbide. But at the same time, being a female photographer in Mexico in the 70s was a difficult path.
Iturbide was exposed to photography by her father and wanted to become a writer, but her family would not allow it. Nevertheless, writing and poetry would influence her work greatly.
“I actually wanted to become a writer and I wanted to study philosophy. But I come from a very conservative background, so I wasn’t allowed to do that. What I essentially look for everywhere is poetry, be it in literature, be it music… So, who is Graciela Iturbide? I don’t know, I still don’t know. I am still searching for her. But I love poetry, be it in music or be it in Andrei Tarkovsky, Francesca Woodman or anyone else, I just love poetry.”
She married at 19 and had three children in three years. Tragedy would strike however when her second child, Claudia would pass away at six-year-old. Soon after, Iturbide and her husband would divorce.
“When I got divorced my family no longer wanted to help me financially. They also didn’t like the fact that I was a photographer.”
“Obviously it was a terrible thing to happen in my life. That I lost my child. But at the same time, it was just the moment when I started doing photography. So I feel that photography was also a sort of therapy for me.”
She enrolled in school at Mexico’s Centro Universitario de Estudios Cinematográficos at 27, where she would focus on still photography once meeting her mentor, Manuel Álvarez Bravo, considered the father of modern Mexican photography. She would work as his assistant from 1970-71.
“So, what I really need to make clear is that he was not just a teacher of photography; he was a teacher about life for me. Because he taught me about everything, he talked about literature, cinematography…so he was more of a teacher of life…he never said this picture is good or this picture is bad, he would never say that flat out. Instead, he would always say something to guide you in the right direction. Yet he would never say, ‘This is good or this is bad’.”
In the early 1970s, Iturbide traveled throughout Latin America and particularly to Cuba and Panama. But by the end of the decade, she was commissioned to document the country’s indigenous population, and this would lead her in the direction that she is most known and celebrated for, capturing the roles of women, identity, festivals and rituals, daily life, and death.
She chose the Seri people, nomadic fishermen in the Sonoran desert in northwestern Mexico. Then, in 1979, she was invited by the artist Francisco Toledo to the town of Juchitán, part of the Zapotec culture in Oaxaca, where she worked until 1988, culminating in the creation of the book Juchitán de las Mujeres. The town would become a second home for her, where she would live for weeks at a time.
Iturbide was inspired here by the idea of the role of women and this led to a strong connection with the Zapotec Indians in Juchitán, a place where the typical gender roles are not as often followed and women are given places of power, running the economy and local community. Her photography set out to understand both these indigenous practices and the imported Catholic religious practices in Mexico.
Her most famous photograph, Nuestra Señora de las Iguanas (Our Lady of the Iguanas), taken at a farmer’s market in 1979, has become an icon in Juchitán and Mexico. Ms. Iturbide states the image “is no longer mine.” There is a life-size sculpture in the Juchitán town square, and the photograph adorns murals, road signs, posters, and postcards.
Her second most famous image is Mujer Ángel (Angel Woman), of a traditional Seri woman walking through the desert with a boombox.
“The Seris are former nomads. For me, this photograph represents the transition between their traditional way of life, and the way capitalism has changed it. For example, they were building their houses from bricks rather than sticks. I liked the fact that they were autonomous and hadn’t lost their traditions, but had taken what they needed from American culture. They believed that money promoted inequalities and individualism, and did not want to become a divided society.”
“I call her Mujer Ángel [Angel Woman] because she looks as if she could fly off into the desert.”
Iturbide would spend more time traveling later in her career, photographing places such as East Germany, India, Madagascar, Hungary, Paris, and the United States.
“First of all, you need to try new things and second of all because I now tend to travel a lot. My pictures are a sort of travel diary… As an artist you need to move on, you need to try new things. I can’t take pictures of Juchitán and Juchitán over and over again. And in the end, photography for me is just an excuse to get to know the world.”
“I did not really consciously develop a style. The style that I have comes from within me. Of course, I have been influenced by many photographers in a positive way but I do not feel that they influenced my style itself. That one, as I said already, is very intuitive, it comes from within me. It’s also what Alvarez Bravo said – that photography is basically everything that surrounds you, everything that surrounds you influences you, what you read, what you see… So the style is very me; from within me.”
Quotes from Graciela Iturbide:
“In Mexico in general people are afraid of death but they also like to play with the theme of death. So there are many, many festivals, such as the one on 2nd November, which is the Day of the Dead. Or on other days when it is a feast day of a saint, people will take food to the cemetery, sing songs and maybe even take a piano to the cemetery and play there. In Mexican culture people are afraid of death, that’s why they try to attack it straight on, so they play with it, they try to make light of it. So perhaps that’s what you see in the pictures.”
“When I’m taking pictures I even forget that I have a camera. When I shoot I forget about everything. Light comes, death comes, people go in and out in costume—and it’s like a play.”
“I do not understand what makes me take a picture. Cartier-Bresson talks about the “decisive moment,” the necessity to function with “lynx eyes and silk gloves.” Perhaps what happens when you press the shutter is an intuitive act infused with all you have learned.”
“Wherever we go we want to find the theme we carry inside ourselves.”
“What the eye sees is a synthesis of who you are and all you have learned. This is what I would call the language of photography.”
Read more about the history of famous street photographers.
View Graciela Iturbide’s work here.
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2 thoughts on “Graciela Iturbide – Forgoing and Embracing Traditional Life in Mexico”
Excellent article James! I first heard of Graciela a few years ago after seeing her on PBS’s Art 21 series. I was suprised I had never heard of her until then.
So glad you liked it Daniel!