Mexican photographer Graciela Iturbide has been making enigmatic photographs for more than 40 years. Her closeup portraits in high-contrast black & white seem to emerge from dreams as they capture mundane activities of people from indigenous cultures. One of her most famous photographs is her unsettling portrait of a Zapotec woman with a cluster of iguanas balanced on her head, “Nuestra Señora de las Iguanas” (“Our Lady of the Iguanas”), 1979. And one of her most beautiful is the haunting “Mujer Angel” (“Angel Woman”), 1980.
Iturbide was born in Mexico City to a rich, conservative Roman Catholic family. While she wanted to be a writer, her family would not allow it. At 19 she married and had three children in eight years, one of whom – a daughter – died at six years of age. She and her husband divorced, and she enrolled in film school at the Universidad Nacional Autonoma de Mexico where she met photographer Manuel Alvarez Bravo. She was his student, apprentice, and assistant. “He opened my life,” she has said, “and with him I got to know Mexico.” It was Alvarez Bravo who encouraged her to visit pre-Columbian communities and photograph the ancient customs surviving in modern Mexico.
Iturbide did not travel to the Zapotec region of Mexico until 1979, but her photos have given the most enduring images of Zapotec life. When she was invited to take pictures in the remote village of Juchitan in Oaxaca, she spent days observing the Zapotec women, who seemed to project an almost ethereal self-possession. The women ruled the marketplace, where they sold textiles, vegetables, fish, bread, etc., all carried on their heads. “Juchitan opened my heart and opened my mind.”
She spent time among the Seri Indians in the Sonoran Desert and photographed goat-slaughtering rituals in Oaxaca. Although Iturbide returned to Juchitan many times for more than six years, she also traveled widely to photograph in Africa, Spain, India, the American South, and Los Angeles.
Slipping into the life of East Los Angeles’s gang culture, she was captivated by the connections between the Mexicans in Mexico and the Mexicans in America. Impermanence is present as skulls and dead animals often recur in her works. Her 1990 “Muerte Novia” shows a pregnant bride wearing a skull mask as life and death are shown in one magical image. Her images honor the people of Juchitan, the Seri in the Sonoran Desert, and the people – most especially the women – of East Los Angeles.
She has had a retrospective at the Getty Museum in Los Angeles. Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts will be exhibiting 125 photographs from her five-decade career from January through May, 2019. Her work is in the permanent collections of LACMA, San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, the Pompidou in Paris, and the Getty Center.