Working always in black and white, at the mercy of shadows and sunlight, Graciela Iturbide’s camera lens has captured work that at first glance could be described as surreal: a woman wearing a living crown of iguanas; a veiled figure walking out into deserted scrublands with a boombox; children communing with alligators, snakes, and chickens; blackbirds making patterns against the sky, seemingly spelling out messages from the earth. In fact, her oeuvre is quite the opposite of surreal with her eye ever drawn to the mythology of indigenous Mexican culture in the modern day, the persistent rituals of the everyday. At the age of 76, she is, perhaps, Mexico’s greatest living photographer.
Born in 1942 in Mexico City to a wealthy and conservative Catholic household, Iturbide didn’t pursue work as a photographer until she was nearly 30 years old, then a married woman and mother of three children. She divorced her husband, enrolling in film school at the Centro Universitario de Estudios Cinematográficos, where her studies led her to photographer Manuel Alvarez Bravo. She worked for Alvarez Bravo as an assistant while she finished school, her interest pivoting to photography under his tutelage. He was the mentor who would open the door for her to a life’s work, her greatest influence. Iturbide was also influenced by the work of Henri Cartier-Bresson, as well as Italian photographer and expat Tina Modotti, who lived and died in Mexico City a few months before she was born.
She left the city early in her career to seek out deep roots of Mexican culture that had been erased by colonialism, by economic development, by flux. She took a keen interest in religion, mythology, and rituals, subjects that allowed her to expand and deepen her worldview as well as her understanding of herself. “My work is egocentric. It is about what Graciela Iturbide saw when she was taking photographs around the world, nothing more,” she told The Guardian. “I am showing how I interpret things through all the influences in my life.”
That egocentricity is clear from the early days of her photography; she has widely shared the story of how she started out as a young photographer taking photos of the funeral rites of angelitos, babies and young children whose families observed the traditional belief that their spirits had left the world to become little angels. For years, Iturbide was fixated on these processions as a subject, creating a series of work that captured the ritual mourning of angelitos. The photographer, herself an atheist, had at the time been grappling with the loss of her own child, a six-year-old daughter.
Finally, in 1976, she stopped after spotting a decaying body on the side of the road, someone whose body had been claimed not by a family member or a friend but by vultures; at the time, she had been photographing another angelito’s ceremony, and though she had been pursuing death through her work for years, something about that day called a halt to her interest in angelitos. Maria Garcia, a correspondent for NPR News’s Boston station, wrote, “It was as if death told her: ‘You search for me. Here I am. Enough.’”
Garcia had the opportunity to speak with Iturbide earlier this year in her coverage of the photographer’s retrospective at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, which ended last month. She shared that she had recently lost her father and, without the comfort of the belief in an afterlife, was struggling to process his death. “There is no hope in such profound loss,” she said. Iturbide’s work, though, brought her a solace that allowed her to reach beyond her self. “There it was — death, so clear and present and somehow redeemed by its beauty. It was as if through her lens, I felt for the first time that hope came from a cultural lineage and the power of ritual and symbol. Of course, I can confront death. I’m Mexican.”
This strong sense of Mexican identity and connection with pain is perhaps why the Frida Kahlo museum charged her with documenting the contents of Kahlo’s newly unsealed bathrooms in 2006, rooms that the artist’s husband Diego Rivera had blocked off after her death. Iturbide revealed to the Los Angeles Times in 2017 that she has never been a “Frida-maniac.” Photographing her personal possessions — her braces, her prosthetic leg, her hospital attire, all in what is often the most intimate space of one’s home — did not lead Iturbide to cast her as a saint but rather as a fellow human being. “[There] I learned that she was a marvelous woman who contended with a lot of pain,” she explained. “I have an image of the Demerol — the morphine she used to take. She had a lot of pain. But she kept painting. Painting was her therapy. I feel like I got to know her better.” Some of the photos from this series were on display this year at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston as well, as part of a Kahlo exhibition.
Concentrated with time, place, and history, the intensity of Iturbide’s focus is what has endowed her work with a timelessness that has carried it through her nearly half-century-long career as a photographer. Iturbide’s most recognizable image, “Nuestra Señora de las Iguanas,” is part of her series Juchitán de las Mujeres that she had taken in Juchitán, Oaxaca, in the late ‘70s. She encountered her subject at the farmer’s market, where the two women conspired to balance the group of iguanas on her head. At the time, there was no way that either of them could have imagined the lasting impact the image would have, a headdress of iguanas. In the words of the New York Times, “It has gone viral,” reproduced locally and beyond on postcards, posters, murals, the balancing act emulated in YouTube videos; there’s now even a life-size bronze sculpture of the subject in the town square.
The image that she created, Iturbide has expressed, is no longer hers, having taken on a life of its own. It’s just as well, a testament to the capacity that she has to satiate a universal craving for awe and myth. “The camera for me is a pretext for exploring life and culture around the world, and what usually guides me is what surprises me as I look at things,” she told The Guardian. “If I am not surprised, I cannot take photographs, because it is missing that emotional dimension.”