Mexican photographer Graciela Iturbide has been making enigmatic photographs for more than 40 years. Her closeup portraits in high-contrast black and 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”), 1979.
Iturbide was born in Mexico City to a wealthy, 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. In the aftermath, she began photographing ‘angelitos’, dead infants laid out in white coffins.
After she and her husband divorced, 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 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 two months living among the Seri Indians in the Sonoran Desert in northwest Mexico and was struck by how the Seri had not been alienated from their labor of fishing, the principal local occupation and a community practice. Her 1979 photographs show the Seri woman of the above-mentioned “Angel Woman” and “Seri Women,” a tableau in which two adult fishermen and a little girl – with their backs to us – face the ocean.
Iturbide returned to Juchitan, Oaxaca many times over a six year period after 1979, photographing public festivals, meetings, domestic life, animals, and goat-slaughtering rituals. 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 Los Angeles County Museum of Art, San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, the Pompidou in Paris, and the Getty Center.